Friday, December 11, 2009

The Limits of Control: Grade C

The Limits of Control (2009)
Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt; Writer & Director Jim Jarmusch. (English, Spanish, and French with subtitles)

This movie has no story; it is like a student’s exercise in filming the same scene in several different ways. Scenes are well staged, excellently photographed, directed, and acted.

A tall, bow-legged black man (De Bankolé) walks around Madrid, Seville, and other cities in Spain in a shiny suit, carrying a duffel bag (an amazing duffel bag that holds at least two other nicely pressed shiny suits). In each city or district of a city, he waits for a couple of days in some apartment. We watch him wait: he lies on the bed, looks out the window, does Tai Chi exercises. Pretty exciting stuff. Mercifully we do not have to watch him brush his teeth.

Then he goes to a café and waits some more. A stranger appears and gives him a small box of wooden matches. He exchanges it for his own box of matches. The stranger gives a cryptic speech but the protagonist remains silent. The stranger departs. The protagonist opens the new box of matches, reads a matrix of numbers and letters on a slip of paper, and eats the paper. Then he goes to the next appointment and the entire sequence is repeated, at least six times, maybe as many as ten times. There are small variations on the sequence, but that’s about it for the movie. He does manage to strangle Bill Murray at the very end, for no reason at all.

The big name stars each appear in one of these small scenes, so that’s no excuse to seek out the movie. Music is good, especially the Flamenco. The film could be a satire on the international espionage genre, but lacking satirical force. It is a comedy without humor, a drama without drama. There are some allusions to the Sergio Leone Spaghettis with the facial close-ups. The repetition does create a sense of time slowed down.

The movie is like a writer’s notebook or an artist’s sketchpad. Variations on a scene are played out to see what they look like. Some of the scenes are visually memorable, but it all adds up to nothing. It will be of interest to film students, but not a wider audience.

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