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The Limits of Control
(Jim Jarmusch, Spain/US/Japan)
By Andrew Tracy
The title’s wholly disingenuous, of course. The Limits of Control is not only rigorously ordered from moment one, it’s also positively overflowing with theoretical pleasures for the self-identifying cinephile. A shame then that those pleasures remain almost exclusively in the realm of theory. Strange that a film so smoothly and beautifully made—and indeed, Jim Jarmusch’s compositional control coupled with the de rigueur Chris Doyle gorgeousness allows Limits to rival the pristinely Müllerized black-and-white of Dead Man (1995) as Jarmusch’s most purely attractive film—could be so fundamentally ungainly and lead-footed, yet this is the unfortunate plight Jarmusch has created for himself. As even those scattered genuine pleasures on passing display are inextricably bound up in the film’s flat conceptual core, they are unable to function as (saving) grace notes in the tuneless whole. Jarmusch’s assemblage of visual, thematic, and narrative (or anti-narrative) conceits is a tour through much of what there is to value in world cinema today, and it is at the level of tourism that the film remains.
This is all the more unfortunate in that Jarmusch has proven himself a past master of creative assimilation and rearticulation. In a film world where aesthetics can so easily become jealously guarded private capital, it’s refreshing to see an American director of such established standing so willingly leaving himself open to the lessons of other cinemas both present and past—and even better, ones that don’t exclusively involve residents of the Pacific Rim performing xxx-treme acts of physical or erotic carnage. The multiple borrowings, evident and less-so, that comprise Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) are not simply the smirking thefts of a Tarantino, who has built a career from being caught stealing. They constitute rather an organically creolized cinema from a filmmaker who has observed and absorbed the work of others in order to expand the boundaries of his own particular sensibility.
However, that precarious balance can be a difficult one to maintain, and not merely because the appropriations become too pronounced. Broken Flowers (2005), Jarmusch’s first unremittingly bad film, quite invisibly digested its announced Eustachian inspiration but, surprisingly, ran aground on the deadpan attenuation that used to be Jarmusch’s specialty (little aided by the misguided belief that Bill Murray’s inherently depthless performance style actually guards great reservoirs of meaning). The Limits of Control continues this unfortunate trend from moment one. After a tai chi session in an airport bathroom, Isaach de Bankolé’s “Lone Man” (as per the end credits) receives the first cryptic instructions of his mysterious mission in Alex Descas’ “Creole” and Jean-François Stévenin’s “French,” the latter man attempting to translate his partner’s abstruse directions while adding his own mystified or skeptical commentary in two languages. This is the kind of low-key interactional discomfort that is a Jarmusch specialty, but as with the Murray-Christopher McDonald-Frances Conroy dinner-table scene in Broken Flowers, he botches it, nervously cutting back to de Bankolé like any journeyman director trying to coverage his ass rather than letting the Descas-Stévenin duet develop its comic momentum, and allowing the latter half of the duo to ham it up with burlesqued eye rolls and shrugs.
Further, this opening scene establishes the purely talismanic use to which Jarmusch will put his performers throughout the film. That de Bankolé and Descas previously shared the screen for Jarmusch in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) only further testifies to the sterility of their employment here. It is de Bankolé and Descas as Euro-art-cinema mainstays, rather than actors possessed of particular expressive abilities, which are privileged in Limits, the weight of heady associations they carry used to bolster the film’s straitjacketed aesthetic-polemical point. Coffee’s seemingly haphazard structure actually gave its best performers’ talents weight and function within an increasingly intricate and subtle design: de Bankolé and Descas, Cate Blanchett, Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina, GZA/RZA/Murray, William Rice and Taylor Mead all, in their vastly different registers, made their unique contributions to Jarmusch’s deceptively modest chamber piece. By contrast, for all its surface mystery and restraint The Limits of Control is so banally forthright in its concerns, so tone-deaf in its presentation that it renders its marquee performers—John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Murray again—mere totems, signifiers of intent rather than vehicles with which to creatively articulate that intent.
That said, this frontality is clearly an intentional part—or rather the crux—of Jarmusch’s schema. As de Bankolé makes his immaculately suited way across some lovely Spanish city- and landscapes, his meetings with assorted contacts and adversaries are overlaid with repeated motifs (visual, verbal, aural) which do not take on added “meaning” so much as assert themselves as sensual objects to be given further flesh in their various incarnations: quite literally in the replication of an oil-on-canvas nude in the voluptuous and perpetually unclothed form of Paz de la Huerta, most entrancingly in the reiteration of Descas’ ominous line “He who thinks he is bigger than the others will end in the cemetery” in a gorgeous flamenco number.
What Jarmusch is quite evidently aiming to do is free some of the basic materials of cinema—colour, composition, movement, intonation—from the restraints of narrative, even as genre expectations provide the necessary reference points for these deviations to take place. The “mystery” of de Bankolé’s mission is transparently empty; it is the limning details of sound, sight, and speech that are to be our main concern, liberated from their obeisance to signification or narrative completion. The cinema, here, is meant to take its place next to the arts which it so diligently references, the embodied (architecture, painting, dance) and the ethereal (music) both.
No intrinsic problem in that, of course. What is problematic—nay, ruinous—is that in The Limits of Control it is the gesture of doing so that is supposed to provide the meat of the movie rather than the accrued value of these aesthetic layers, and every facet of the film’s construction is keyed to this self-impressed end. The cinematic and extra-cinematic references drop like lead weights, Hurt and Swinton’s thudding, directly indirect invocations of Kaurismäki and The Lady From Shanghai (1947) no less ostentatious than Jarmusch’s literal “framing” of de Bankolé in the successive planes of an abandoned shack, or the transformation of a legendary guitar’s string into a weapon of heartily endorsed assassination against the film’s pockmarked, flag-pinned embodiment of sneering, falsely entitled philistinism. For Jarmusch, the true revenge of the “reality-based community” against those who run the world through lies is the former’s faith in and capacity for imagination—and that this quite adequately summarizes both Limits’ thesis and the specifics of its articulation should give some idea of its own imaginative impoverishment. The manifest attribute of Rivette’s puzzle-films, an avowed influence on Limits, is that they are actually, maddeningly puzzling; the only maddening aspect of Jarmusch’s film is its self-defeating blatancy.
Judging from the few notes of rapturous praise that Limits has received amidst the general chorus of dismissal, it’s evidently possible to get “swept up” in the film’s cumulative paean to art’s liberation from the double confinement of cinematic narrative and globalized capitalism—which in Jarmusch’s (essentially accurate) assessment amount to the same thing. But how free can art be when it is tied to a schema as relentlessly programmatic as the most lockstep formula, however elevated the terms in which that formulism is expressed? The Limits of Control is not an artistic experience in itself but a series of attitudes and postures towards art, a self-flattering manifesto of aesthetic democracy vs. vulgarized politico-corporate privatization which paradoxically caters solely to the insular, proprietary vanity of the cinephilic set. There should be few members of that rarefied community who wouldn’t essentially agree with Jarmusch’s positions, and none who should be able to accept this trite morality play as a genuine realization of our shared hopes and desires.