Sunday 11 January 2015

Birdman (2015) - Alejandro G. Iñárritu


I have never seen a film as cynical as Birdman. And I loved it.

Twenty years ago Michael Keaton's Riggan reached his peak playing Batman Birdman in the film series of the same name. Now he's a washed up actor on Broadway, striving to remain relevant to a new audience in his new play. Fame haunts him in the form of his old character - the overbearing film poster in his dressing room and a voice in his head.

Cynicism oozes from every inch of celluloid. It's present in the representation of Broadway, its claustrophobic hallways and shoddy dressing rooms of brick and retro wallpaper constructed in reality (or are they?), juxtaposed with the bright lights of the stage where falsity makes way for truth. In its lack of money and reliance on star power to bring in audiences. In its seeming lack of relevance in the face of cinema and social media. In the way the whole film is a performance.

It's present in the depiction of critics. "I'm going to destroy your play", says Lindsay Duncan's aging, bitchy critic Tabitha. They have the ability to make or break a production, but why should one viewpoint hold so much power?

Cinema, too, doesn't escape the cynical, inwardly reflecting gaze of director Iñárritu's camera. Cinema, like theatre, is a celebrity machine reliant on stars, using and abusing actors, raising them to stardom and dropping them just as fast. Yet cinema is a place of superheroes and vapid storytelling - theatre is where the real art is, where real performance takes place, not acting the clown in a lycra suit.

Mostly, cynicism is present in the portrayal of celebrity. Fame is a fickle mistress and a separate entity to critical acclaim. It comes in the form of superhero fans, reality shows, Twitter followers and viral videos. It's shallow, like the journalist asking whether Riggan injects semen into his face to maintain his complexion. What exactly is the price of fame and celebrity?

That's the question Birdman begins to answer. It's an exploration of the mindset of an actor, where (method?) acting and reality collide with dire consequences. Acting, too, is a cynical business, full of psychotic, self-obsessed characters with an unquenchable thirst for adoration and godlike status, constantly questioning "when have I made it?".  Actors are dependent on all of the above.  It's enough to drive anyone to madness; and that's exactly what happens.

Birdman is a dense film with plenty to unpick, yet it all hangs together in seemingly one continuous shot. It provides a sense of live performance, the whole film a stage show acted out before us with an unparalleled sense of flow, the actors drifting in and out of shot and each others lives. It's as if we are equal parts Birdman and critic: at once controlling and commenting on the performance of Riggan's life. It's accompanied by a percussive soundtrack that may or may not be diegetic, perfectly mimicking Riggan's volatile sense of mind and his blurring of stage and reality.

There are some incredible performances, here: Emma Stone's hilarious junkie daughter Sam; Zach Galifianakis as eccentric producer Jake trying to maintain control; Edward Norton as arrogant yet troubled actor Mike; Andrea Riseborough's vulnerable actress Laura. Most of all is Keaton at the centre of it all. Riggan is quite literally a man on the edge; his breakdown is fascinating and believable.

Birdman is a divisive film. Some may even call it self-indulgent, but when the film's subject is vanity and self-obsession, that's somewhat the point. And it's all presented with a deliciously dark and knowing sense of humour.

It's cynical as hell. But it's a triumph.


Watch: Birdman is out now.