Awards season officially begins today with the opening of the 71st Venice Film Festival, which in recent years has put the likes of Black Swan and Gravity on the launching pad with its prestigious first-night slot. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest, Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) perches beautifully in that company, being an experimental yet fully grounded work by a supreme visual stylist.
Like those two films, it also puts its faith in a bravura performance, this one from Michael Keaton, who literally strips himself to the essentials in a role that stamps this as the first must-see of the autumn.
The trailer suggests a very different film from the one Iñárritu actually made, highlighting a magic realism and sense of mental turmoil that does feature in the film, but which doesn’t dominate it. Instead of being a wacky, effects-led satire about a star in freefall, Birdman is really a thoughtful – but also technically impressive – meditation on self-esteem and true human value in the Facebook era. Nodding to stage classics such as Death Of A Salesman and lesser-spotted movie equivalents such as Synecdoche, New York, Birdman mostly rests on the writings of Raymond Carver, whose 1981 collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is the foundation of the film.
The setting is Broadway, where former superhero star Riggan Thomson is staging his own take on Carver’s work, funding it from his own pocket. As the curtain is about to rise, a hammy co-star is injured in a freak accident, but the day is saved when a hotshot stage star (Edward Norton) agrees to step in. This really is the bulk of the story, since Thomson then finds himself at the centre of a maelstrom of his own making: neurotic co-stars, a fussing manager, a needy daughter, a stifling mistress, a theatre critic sharpening her claws, a public that seems to have forgotten him and an ex-wife he’s still really rather fond of. But watching him through all this is the figure of Birdman, the hit superhero character he played for three movies and who won’t let him go.
There are some wonderful in-jokes and a nicely judged selection of namechecks for the likes of George Clooney and Justin Bieber, but Birdman isn’t just an arthouse What Just Happened. If anything, it is surprisingly emotional; as we’ve come to expect from an Iñárritu film, Birdman is a man’s movie in a very delicate sense, dealing with relationship and family issues from a place of vulnerability.
What the film ultimately talks about, however, is more rich and profound that Iñárritu’s earlier works, dealing with issues of art, artistry and why we create. That Iñárritu has done so with a multi-layered script is a thing of wonder in itself, but the perfect physical precision with which he has done so – his restless camera takes us into every peeling nook and cranny of the theatre, until its dank corridors become as familiar as home – is a miracle. The ending will baffle or delight, but like the rest of the film it is uncompromising, a true throwback to the ‘70s – Alan Arkin’s Little Murders springs to mind – a time when surrealism and abstraction weren’t alien terms and people watched Batman for laughs.
Birdman opens in UK cinemas on January 2, and an official Empire review will follow in due course. There's more from Iñárritu in the new issue of Empire, which hits shelves tomorrow.