Saturday, June 12, 2010

Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control (2009)

This truly, undeniably, is the most pretentious movie I've seen in...well, EVER, maybe. It stretches the Jarmuschian aesthetic to the breaking point, and possibly beyond. If his films tend to be light on plot, this one pushes itself as close as it can to absolute zero--perfect entropic stillness. If his protagonists tend to be on the uncommunicative side, Limits' unnamed central character is practically catatonic. I can absolutely understand why it has an average rating of forty-one percent on Rottentomatoes. Fair enough: the movie does its damnedest to alienate anyone coming in with traditional cinematic expectations, so in a way if would have failed had it not confused and irritated a lot of people. I suspect its critical reputation will improve as time passes--remember, most critics hated The Recognitions when it first came out, and there was rioting at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. That's just how these things work.

I, at any rate, found it to be gorgeous, mesmerizing, and generally brilliant. It may not totally succeed at what it's doing, but if it's a failure (which I'm not convinced it is), it's sure as hell a fascinating failure, and, to my personal taste, it's never, ever boring.

The "plot" is as follows: an unnamed man (Jarmusch favorite Isaach De Bankolé) is on an unspecified but clearly illicit mission in Spain. He sits in a lot of outdoor cafes and drinks a lot of coffee. At the beginning, he is given a matchbox containing (possibly) a coded message, and a whole string of people (including John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Youki Kudoh (one of the leads in Mystery Train--seeing her in another Jarmusch film is super-cool)) show up, have one-sided conversations with him on seemingly arbitrary topics, trade his matchbox for another matchbox, and leave. There are also a LOT of shots of him lying in bed, fully clothed, staring into space. At the end, there is a climax of sorts, but let's not get carried away.

(Though I'm not a huge cinephile, I'm sufficiently clueful to recognize that there are a lot of references to European directors like Godard and Buñuel--there's one scene in particular (where Swinton's character is abducted by parties unknown) that I would swear is a direct nod to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.)

What does it all mean? Nothing, quite possibly. All of Jarmusch's films have a bit of an existential tinge to them, but this one really goes to the wall in that regard. All the matchbox messages appear to be the same, and at the end, he tosses the last one in the trash--it seems quite probable that our tendency to try to find order in chaos is being mocked here. The title, though obviously polysemic, may in part refer to the limited extent to which a meaningful system can be imposed upon, and thereby make sense out of (and, by extension, control), semiotic chaos.

But the question of "solving" the movie is really beside the point, as Jarmusch fans should a priori expect. The reason to watch the film is to savor the visual poetry induced by that uniquely Jarmuschian strung-out-and-wide-awake-at-four-am atmosphere, which is present in spades. Bankolé is wonderfully expressively inexpressive (and MAN does he ever have splendidly angular features), following and expanding upon the roles of Johnny Depp in Dead Man, Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog, and Bill Murray in Broken Flowers. He's just fascinating to watch, and if you suspect that Jarmusch is trying to drive you insane by showing him in the same or very similar scenes over and over and over…well, maybe, but I think it's at least worth considering the possibility that, rather, he's trying to shock you out of your deeply-entrenched assumptions (so deeply, in fact, that you don't recognize them as assumptions--you just assume that that's how things naturally ARE) about what film can do and can be.

Does that sound terribly pretentious? Well...yeah. As you will recall, I copped to the film's being so at the very beginning, and if the film is, it seems only fair that a review of the film also be. I don't think that has to be a pejorative, though. Maybe it's just self-indulgent dicking around; maybe not. Regardless, I thought it was great. Will YOU like it? Beats me. If you didn't like Jarmusch's previous movies, it's an easy call: stay the hell away. If, unlike Roger Ebert, you had the good taste to recognize the brilliance of Dead Man, then...well, still no guarantees, but it's at least worth a shot. It might just change your life.


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