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Stranger in Paradise

Jim Jarmusch strips narrative cinema down to minimalist allegory with his latest arresting work

Tilda Swinton briefs Isaach De Bankol? over two espressos (not a double).

The Limits of Control

Director:Jim Jarmusch
Cast:Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray
Release Date:2009

Opens May 29 at the Charles Theatre

By Steve Erickson | Posted 5/27/2009

The Limits of Control is a paradoxical movie. It glamorizes handsome, taciturn men in suits while deconstructing their aura of cool. It's essentially a thriller, yet it's also the artiest film Jarmusch has made since his 1984 breakthrough Stranger Than Paradise. It sometimes resembles his 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai stripped of the plentiful violence, hip-hop soundtrack, and charismatic Forest Whitaker performance that made it marginally commercial. It's proven to be extremely divisive, but like David Lynch's Inland Empire and Jarmusch's own Dead Man, the negative reactions testify to the shock that innovative cinema can produce.

Control begins with the mysterious Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) arriving at a Spanish airport. He's greeted by two French men. From there, he travels around a photogenic landscape, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. He has encounters with talkative strangers, who give him matchbooks containing coded instructions on paper and spout off about cinephilia or the resonance of wooden musical instruments. He ignores the attentions of a naked girl with a gun, remaining stridently asexual. He takes in music at a flamenco bar and is given a guitar, from which he removes one string. His purpose remains enigmatic until the film's final reel, his surroundings increasingly strange and hallucinatory.

The Limits of Control is structured around repetition. Everyone greets the Lone Man with the same catch-phrase: "You don't speak Spanish, right?" He orders two cups of espresso at every café where he drinks, insisting that they be placed side by side and turning down double espressos. The frame is filled with countless doubled images, like the painting of a naked woman resting besides a sculpture of a torso. A helicopter stalks the Lone Man across Spain.

The movie is steeped in gameplay and ritual. While it dresses its characters as if they'd just come from a fashion-mag photo shoot, it acknowledges their childish nature. It's self-conscious about its own reliance on dead time; Tilda Swinton's blonde-wigged character talks about her delight in cinematic moments of empty space.

Jarmusch has the movies on his mind here. One character cites Aki Kaurismäki's La Vie de Bohème without naming it. But the biggest inspirations behind The Limits of Control are two '60s film noirs: John Boorman's Point Blank and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï. (One of the film's production companies even takes its name from Point Blank.) Boorman transplanted directorial and editing techniques taken from the French New Wave to a ghostly Los Angeles, while Melville tried his hardest to make an American film and failed, producing something akin to a synthesis of Howard Hawks and Michelangelo Antonioni. An American, Jarmusch films a Frenchman of African descent traveling across Spain. The torch has been passed.

And The Limits of Control attempts to snatch back the concept of the "hipster" from Pitchfork-reading, Animal Collective-listening white guys in Brooklyn, and John Hurt's monologue about the roots and history of the word "Bohemian" seems particularly pointed. Jarmusch has always had an admirably cosmopolitan sensibility; he's one of the few white American directors who consistently imagine compelling characters of color. Isaach De Bankolé speaks little and his face betrays no emotion; the loud but graceful score by the Japanese rock band Boris feels intended to express his inner life.

Once its destination is reached, you might find something pat about The Limits of Control. It ends up as a political allegory, in which an international group of hipsters led by a black man overthrow a reactionary white man, played by Bill Murray. Perhaps Jarmusch was thinking of the election of Obama. Yet the experience of watching its first 90 minutes only touches on politics in the most abstract way.

Jarmusch's hero is steeped in all kinds of art. The Lone Man obsessively returns to a Madrid museum to look at paintings. Jarmusch has always drawn on pop culture, but it's not the only form of culture in his films: Dead Man paid homage to William Blake. Bill Murray's character, billed as a nameless "American" in the end credits, scoffs at the notion that art could ever be important or that Bohemia could be real. His attitudes are familiar, but Jarmusch has the courage to imagine an alternative to the philistine culture in which we live. That's what is truly political in The Limits of Control.

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