Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, Spain/USA/Japan, 2009)
Jim Jarmusch is quite simply one of the most interesting living film-makers working out of the USA. His latest film, The Limits of Control, is set in Spain with an international cast. There is at the core of his work a consistency of style and yet this latest outing represents a progression in the evolution of his body of work that is simultaneously understated and visually spectacular. One is never in any doubt that one is watching a Jarmusch film.

The Limits of Control is at least superficially a mystery. Designed like a Hitchcock spy thriller and oozing with a retro 70’s style that remains distinctly contemporary, characters behave like something out of an early James Bond movie or even Get Smart. There are secret passwords and the passing of small coded messages that are then swallowed. Knowing words are spoken cryptically: “Wait three days for the bread; the guitar will find you”. Despite sounding corny, it’s actually full of panache, though dark humour is (unsurprisingly) never far away. There’s also an element of film noir, including creative depictions of nudity.

The film is sparse with dialogue and characters speak languages different to each other. Sound familiar? It should. Language, communication and miscommunication seem to be recurring themes for Jarmusch. The very photogenic Isaach De Bankolé takes centre stage in the film and it is hard not to recall the scenario between his earlier character in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, a French ice-cream van vendor in New York, speaking not a word of English yet maintaining a friendship with the non-French speaking title character (Forest Whitaker).

Because of the sparsity of dialogue, often the words spoken take on deep and cryptic meanings, bordering on philosophical: “I am among no-one”, “reality is arbitrary”, “the girl is a criss-cross”. The mystery deepens when the words seem to be reflected in what the protagonist sees at subsequent visits to the art gallery (Madrid’s Centro de Arte Reine Sofia), such as a girl’s figure in the shape of a cross. A personal exciting moment was when we get the protagonist’s point of view of the Madrid skyline, which then seamlessly transposes over the Antonio López painting, Madrid from Captain Haya, which he views. I instantly recognised this same piece from when it displayed last year at ACMI as part of the Kiarostami/Erice Correspondences exhibition.

The film is episodic, which we often find in Jarmusch’s films. Each episode involves a different character, in a different location, with different art production. I must say that the visuals are an absolute delight: colour composition and the use of the frame are awesome. There is nothing showy in Christopher Doyle’s stunning camera work, which uses an assortment of great angles, often static, and any movement used is masterful and restrained. The opening shot is, in fact, a very unconventional and skewed angle that takes a few seconds to work out what the protagonist is actually doing, and sets the tone of the film.

The film plays on patterns. There are visual patterns – some of the most arresting images you’ll see in a film – and there are narrative patterns, that repeat themselves and create an expectation in the audience. But each iteration is different from the previous and it’s satisfying to detect the subtle differences in each idiosyncratic repetition.

The film has an impressive support cast including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, Hiam Abbass, John Hurt and others, but no-one is named. The credits merely describe them: Lone Man, Nude, Blonde, Guitar, etc.

I put the alert because you may want to discover for yourself without pre-empting: the film’s subtext is about the eternal struggle between those who love peace and art (including poetry, music, film, philosophy, etc) and the power-mongering politicians. That becomes evident as the story progresses and is cryptically underscored with the film's final message: "NO LIMITS. NO CONTROL."

The film is self-reflexive, an ironic (perhaps even comic) conceit that Jarmusch allows himself that recalls Wim Wenders’ The State of Things, in which Wenders’ stand-in, Patrick Buchau, talks about the use of black and white (in a black and white film). Similarly Jarmusch’s characters discuss techniques in film that he is demonstrating at that very point in the film. It’s a lot of fun.

Despite the familiarity, there’s something profoundly refreshing about Jarmusch’s films. It’s not just the visuals, it’s not just the wild characterisations that border on the comic, nor just the bizarre dialogue, nor the lack of exposition. Did I mention the fabulous sound design and music? Basically it’s all of the above, and how Jarmusch constructs the elements in a way that exceeds the sum of the parts. It makes this film fascinating. I have several Jarmusch films to catch up on, but of those I have seen, The Limits of Control is one of his very best and possibly the best cinema release of the year so far. It opens in cinemas today.


Jurguens said...

Looking forward to this film.

PS: Christopher Doyle is definitely amongst the best cinematographers in the world

GGBlog said...

Wow. That is a seriously positive review and completely at odds with what both Ebert and The Age's Schembri have had to say about it ("artless, pretentious dirge")!
I have found I appreciate Jarmusch the longer he goes - some of his earlier films are a victim of too much self-important, slow moving ponderings - Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise come to mind.
I was wondering whether I would bother to see this one but your review has re-opened the possibility.
Just to demonstrate how we all respond differently to things, Schembri finished his review by describing my favourite Jarmusch, Dead Man, as "lifeless ... art movie hell." Nooooo!

Paul Martin said...

Jurguens, I've only taken notice of Doyle since Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 and have been impressed with the diversity of his work. He seems very adaptable to different directors' styles. I absolutely love what he did with Van Sant's Paranoid Park, my favourite release of 2007.

Robert, you've mentioned three Jarmusch titles that I haven't seen so can't comment. I can't say that any of his films I've seen that I'd call "self-important".

While watching the film, I was thinking that some people could find it boring as shit. I suppose a director's style resonates with you or not. If you like Jarmusch, you should love this one. If you don't normally like Jarmusch, you might still like it.

As for Schembri, well he and I often have opposing opinions about a film. I just had a look at his review in The Age (it's not online yet) and I find it quite appalling how much of the plot he gives away, and it's only a short review.

On one level, the film could be taken as style over substance. It's so full of style, and that's an easy superficial conclusion to make. But there's so much more going on and if one allows oneself to get into the space, you can see and feel it. Good films demand something of an audience. It's not that you sit there passive, take in a bit of action and go away without giving the film a second thought. You can do that - and those are generally popcorn movies that Schembri loves. It's not my thing, though, and The Limits of Control is not that sort of film.

I wonder what Schembri would make of Akerman's Jeanne Dielman. I never see him at those screenings.

Jurguens said...

I like popcorn movies and I like weird movies. A bit of everything. Jim Jarmusch's movies may seem self important to some, but that is so subjective... I find Michael Bay's self important too.

Christopher Doyle is an incredible cinematographer who has created beautiful imagery, but always at the service of the film, and the director. He has also worked in many different styles and genres. I find that he manages to be at once a stand out cinematographer and a subtle one. I don't know how to describe it and the bloody headache is not helping.

David O'Connell said...

I'm heartened by your positive review too Paul. On the back of Broken Flowers, which I think is the best thing Jarmusch has ever done, I was hoping for this one to carry the momentum onward.

He's definitely an acquired taste though. I think his career really started with Down by Law, the 2 earlier films are virtually unwatchable. But everything in between has been bliss!

His humour has that elliptical deadpan style that might actually be serious half the time. I think he's taken a lot of cues from Scandinavian directors and vice versa. Watching Roy Andersson's masterpiece You the Living reminded me of Jarmusch in a way.

Paul Martin said...

Juergens, I like some popcorn movies, though I find the proportion dwindling over time. Mostly that's because mainstream film-makers are not aiming their films at me - Jim Emerson wrote a nice article on just this subject yesterday (and he mentions Bay by film title).

What you say about Doyle is just what I am coming to understand about his work, and which I suppose I'm alluding to above. I understand what you're saying, headache or not. ;)

Jurguens said...

Hahaha... that was a nice article. I agree, I'm certainly not excited by, let's say, G.I Joe The Rise of Cobra (I think that's the title), but there are other I'm looking forward to.

PS: and off to bed I need to get better

Paul Martin said...

David, my first Jarmusch was Ghost Dog, which I thought was brilliant. De Bankolé has a small role in that, and he is electric.

Broken Flowers is more subdued and aesthetically quite different, but I loved the observational style. Bill Murray was on a journey, but it wasn't about the destination. Not from the audience's perspective, at least. I remember the film getting fairly mixed reception at the time, and realising that much of the film's merit went over people's heads.

Maybe it's the irony and the deadpan humour, which I love. I see the similarity with Andersson, and you may be interested to know that there's a session of his early shorts at MIFF, which I've booked in. I loved You, The Living.

David O'Connell said...

Ideally I'd love to see about 40 of the films showing at MIFF but realistically may only see about 15-20 which I'll be reviewing for my blog at

I'm seriously considering seeing the Andersson shorts too Paul. Should be fascinating. The new Sam Mendes is a nice late pick-up as well, pity the one screening is on a night I can't go! :(

Paul Martin said...

David, I've added Screen Fanatic to my MIFF links. I'd like to see the Mendes film, but it'd be cramming and I don't like to cram. I'd rather appreciate a smaller number of films than not appreciate a large number. I'd have to see three in a row and I just can't do it. It'll get a release, anyhow. I think I liked (loved, really), Revolutinary Road more than anyone I know, and for me, it cemented Mendes in my brain as a talent.

David O'Connell said...

Thanks for adding my link Paul, and you're right, it's not as if a Mendes film will miss a wide release.

You've got great taste too, and I may just about match you in terms of worshipping Revolutionary Road. I just looked up your review of it and we definitely agree on virtually all points. It's one of my favourite 2 or 3 films of the past year, easily. You can read the review I wrote at the time at

To this day I can't comprehend how Di Caprio missed out on an Oscar nomination.

Jurguens said...

This must be a meeting of three weirdos 'cause I loved Revolutionary Road too. It's a great drama, driven but subtle, gentle and powerful, grand in the themes it touches upon and yet intimate.

I thought it was a very mature and complex film for Mendes, but also for the two lead actors. I've never been a fan of Leo but he delivers a truly great performance, and Kate is faultless as usual. She impressed me in her first film (Heavenly Creatures) and has never disappointed me since. She has always been a powerful gutsy intelligent actress.

Toby said...

Revolutionary Road is great. I loved it too. I think it was too much for a lot of people to handle.

Cinema Autopsy said...

Great review of The Limits of Control Paul. I've just seen it now and will be posting my own review in the next 24 hours (plus I'll be reviewing it on the radio show I do on Saturdays).

I was asked a few months ago to list my favourite 5 directors and I found that I simply had to include Jarmusch because of the immense pleasure that all his films give me. Broken Flowers and Down By Law are two of my favourites but Dead Man is Jarmusch's masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1990s.

I remember that for several years The Astor used to regularly screen Dead Man as a double with Lost Highway. That double was sheer bliss!

Paul Martin said...

It's affirming to see a few people who like the films I often find myself having to defend to others. I look forward to your review, Thomas, but I'm wondering what you think of my claim of it being one of the best cinema releases of the year. Do you think that's a fair call? The target audience for this film will all be pre-occupied with MIFF, so it may not get the Melbourne audience it deserves. If every film I saw at MIFF would be as good as The Limits of Control, I'd be a very happy bunny indeed.

As for Rev Road, I agree with you, Toby, that it was too much for some people to handle. Some described it as melodramatic, but I found it authentic - very, very real in a way that we rarely see on screen. It confirmed that the truths that were humorously depicted in American Beauty are keen insights into the nature of contemporary relationships.

Jurguens, for me, Heavenly Creatures, which I believe was Winslet's first film, was also one of her best performances and my favourite Jackson film. I don't always like DeCaprio's performances, but I thought he was excellent in RR.

Cinema Autopsy said...

My The Limits of Control review has just gone online. I think it's excellent but for me it is probably not one of this year's best although it would make my top 20 at least. But I can see it has really stuck a chord with you, which is terrific.

I agree that the timing for its release is unfortunate and in fact all 4 films released this week are excellent and it is a shame that they will be overshadowed by MIFF.

Paul Martin said...

It's a top-3 for me. Did you get the political sub-text? When that clicked, my appreciation really went up. It's so subtle, but once you recognise it, it sees completely obvous.

Cinema Autopsy said...

Yep, I got it, although I read it as a broader commentary on politics, the corporate mentality and bureaucracy in general.