Monday, January 4, 2010
The Limits of Control
Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is a confounding, enigmatic, puzzling film, a sustained series of non-sequiturs strung together. It's a film built around contemplation and repetition, around the slow, deliberate examination (and re-examination) of a limited set of situations and events. It's built also around the moment, around the details that, ordinarily, would add up to a complete picture, but here exist simply for their own sake. It's a mystifying film because of this, obscure in its intent, nearly dialogue-free for long stretches of time. The film patiently, deliberately follows a mostly silent assassin, credited only as the Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), as he meets with a series of contacts, receiving a coded message from each one, all leading towards the completion of his latest mission. This assassin hardly says a word, he never seems to sleep, and he sticks to a rigid routine of walking around, visiting museums, sitting in cafés where he always orders two separate cups of espresso, an order that seems to be one of several codes that identifies him to his contacts. Jarmusch observes these routines at length, utilizing methodical editing schemes that enhance the film's careful repetition, its continual returning to the same phrases, the same images and basic setups.
Perhaps the key to understanding this simple, stripped-down film is in a scene where the assassin meets with Tilda Swinton's dolled-up, platinum-blonde mystery woman (credited only as Blonde, as befits the film's succession of archetypes and basic forms). While the assassin sits and listens, she lectures him about the joys of old movies, referencing Hitchcock's Suspicion with its juggling of possibly poisoned milk glasses and Welles' The Lady From Shanghai with its hall of mirrors finale and its messy structure; it doesn't make any sense, she says, and neither does this film, for totally different reasons. But she convincingly makes the case for the pleasures to be found in classic cinema. "You can really see what the world looked like, thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago," she says. "You know: the clothes, the telephones, the trains, the way people smoked cigarettes, the little details of life. The best films are like dreams you're never sure you've really had... Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything." When she says "smoked," Jarmusch cuts to an image of the café's waiter deeply inhaling from a cigarette, letting the smoke roll through his nostrils and out again. It's a sublime moment, and this conversation is one of the film's undeniable high points, a celebration of the cinema's power and a kind of statement of purpose for a film that is otherwise often unfathomable. It's also a moment of pure sensual satisfaction and an image that provides its own justification.
This seems to be what the film is aiming for, a series of more-or-less disconnected moments that provide their own justification, that exist simply as a document of the way things look and feel. The assassin's museum visits reflect a similar concept, as what he sees in paintings gets reflected in reality, and vice versa; life and art flow into one another, responding to one another, just as a film both documents and comments upon reality. When the film is over, and the assassin's mission is complete, he receives a blank piece of paper and goes to the museum to look at a white-on-white painting of a plain white sheet. The film moves at the slow rhythm of daily life, but at the same time it is absurd and unreal, working on movie logic: it is like someone's hyper-real dream of what life might be like. It is movie life, and de Bankolé's assassin is a movie assassin, receiving coded notes in matchbooks and eating the little scraps of paper after silently decoding and reading the messages. He also meets with a series of movie stalwarts, identified in the credits only with simple nicknames. Paz de la Huerta, notably, appears as a continually naked femme fatale, credited as Nude, who first threatens de Bankolé with a gun, then attempts again and again to seduce him. He, of course, refuses, since he can't give in while he's on a job. It's a thriller cliché, the icy killer who shuns human connection, while the girl is there to show some skin and prove what a badass the killer is, so cold that he can resist even this temptation. It's one of Jarmusch's most clever subversions of genre tropes, as he simplifies the typical noir romance into a platonic relationship between a stony killer and a sensual, continually naked seductress. When they sleep, she's naked and curled up in a ball against him, while he's stiff and fully clothed: it's both a visual reference to the usual sexual dynamics of movies like this, and a potent encapsulation of the femme fatale/cold hero archetypal relationship.
The film comes alive during encounters like this, as well as the appearances by Swinton's absurdist spy, John Hurt's Guitar (who discourses on the origins and meanings of bohemianism), Youki Kudoh's Molecules (who talks about the intersections of science and spirituality), and Gael García Bernal's Mexican (who talks about hallucinations and illusions). Each of these conversations, which are really more like monologues since de Bankolé rarely contributes more than a word, adds to the film's loose array of themes, which together create a ragged portrait of modernity and all its mysteries. In its structure, the film is a bit like Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, albeit mostly without that film's sense of back-and-forth conversational gambits; here, most of the talk is distinctly one-sided. While the lone assassin just sits and listens, his contacts tell him about art and philosophy, about cultural tropes and powerful experiences. His stone-faced reticence is contrasted against their various passions; each person he comes into contact with cares, and cares deeply, about something or someone, some idea or object.
All of these threads weave through the film, aided by the repetition and the subtle, unexpected bursts of humor that arise from these simple situations, like the increasing absurdity of the repeated catchphrase "you don't speak any Spanish, right?" The film's moody pulse is also accentuated by the stunning soundtrack, organized by psych-metal outfit Boris with additional contributions by likeminded bands Sunn O))) and Earth. It is questionable, however, if all of these disparate strands and sketched-out ideas ever really add up to anything in the long run. The film is built around the temps mort, but all this dead space, though sometimes hypnotic and beautifully shot, is just as often numbing and empty. There's a thin line between languid and soporific, and The Limits of Control constantly wavers between the two. Even for those willing to commit to its laidback pacing and steadfast refusal to explain anything, to provide any characterization or narrative satisfactions, it can be a trying, confounding experience. Jarmusch rebuffs any attempt at psychological probing of his central character, whose craggy face sometimes betrays hints of amusement or pensiveness but rarely more than a momentary flicker, a there-and-then-gone trace of emotion before returning to his bland stasis.
Is this all an allegory of some sort? Maybe, especially since Jarmusch drops a few hints in the forms of some elliptical commentary on Americanism and militarism. The final confrontation between de Bankolé and Bill Murray's incarnation of mundane evil as a corporate middle manager — credited as the American, of course — also seems like a jab at American international activities, a reference to the ways in which powerful people try to control and shape the world. All these references are oblique, little more than hints around the edges of the film, but the intent is obvious nonetheless. Whether this all adds up to anything substantial is another question altogether, one that's hard to answer. It's an undeniably — and typically — idiosyncratic meditation from Jarmusch, a low-key genre deconstruction, a tribute to the beauty and mystery of the movies and also, at times, an insufferable bore. These contradictions are never resolved, making this a weird and weirdly unsatisfying effort from Jarmusch, more like an outline for a film, a sketchbook exercise, than a completed work in itself.