Jim Jarmusch begins his new film The Limits of Control with this quote from The Drunken Boat by Rimbaud
As I was floating down unconcerned Rivers
I no longer felt myself steered by the haulers
And so it is in Jarmuschâ€™s film. We will slowly drift through this story of a secret agent, played by the ultra cool Isaach De Bankolé as he goes on an undefined mission in very specific places with an indefinite sense of urgency. He encounters a series of indeterminate characters played by Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta and the big bad guy, Bill Murray. Directors and perhaps even stories themselves are what mediate and guide an audience through a film - finally providing some kind of catharsis. Thereâ€™s no such guidance here. It is a collection of unhurried unfolding, seemingly important details that lead to the unsettling fact that you will, in the end, have to put together your own damn story.
As I understand reader-response theory, it is the reader (or viewer) who is the one who causes art to exist, that it is the audience interpretation that gives life to the work of art. That seems to explain the Limits of Control as much as any anything. Jarmusch has artfully employed all the elements of genre, plot, character, event, symbolism, and even climax - just not in a way that leaves the audience in the same place about what has happened. He attends masterfully to important movie moments like lingering on beautiful stars and beautiful spaces. He dwells on De Bankoléâ€™s face as a work of art. He catches the ambience of the Madridâ€™s architecture, cafes, museums, and streets. He explores the exact light of Spanish mornings and afternoons. It reminds me at times of Antonioniâ€™s The Passenger, but with even less of a narrative thrust. Narrative clues abound, but they are less clues than random genre situations, and you make what you can of them. I donâ€™t want to spoil the pleasure of the slowly and randomly delivered genre moments, but they are great fun.
By deconstructing his film to pure cinematic and movie elements, without a cohesive narrative, he has created a wonderfully patient and surprising absorbing work of art. As he says in the screenplay â€œEverything is subjective,â€ and â€œReality is arbitraryâ€. But there is more going on than that. The decision to resist the â€˜manipulationâ€™ of a narrative is, of course, wickedly anti-commercial. Fans of the directorâ€™s minimalism will probably have the patience to bask in the formal compositions and wonderful cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle(paranoid Park, In the Mood for Love). Small events read like a series of arch noir and spy movie clichés - the naked beauty he finds on his hotel bed (â€œI never have sex when Iâ€™m workingâ€ he tells the naked women, who reappears several times in a transparent raincoat) codes and messages appear in box matches, in the café he always orders two cups of espresso in the same café each day. Is this a clue to people he is meeting? The secret to whether you are â€˜one of usâ€™ seems to be the phrase â€œYou donâ€™t speak Spanish do youâ€ . But who are â€œusâ€!?
The pace is languid, the details clever, the humor intentional. Itâ€™s a different kind of movie experience. You just need to be prepared to write it yourself!