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The Limits of Control

by Kavish Chetty / 18.05.2010

Jim Jarmusch is the kookiest cat in the cave. His hairstyle says it all: a grey anachronism, fringe scooped in like a Kommetjie wave, served with two lamb chop sideburns. I’ve obsessed over that hairstyle many an ennui-ridden afternoon, and its enigma has attracted me to his film-making. But consistently, his films have shown me they are simply an extension of that hairstyle and the personality underneath it: indulgent and self-concerned. Which is not to say his films are rubbish; they’re kooky and iconoclastic. The last one most fresh in my memory is Coffee and Cigarettes, and it shares something in common with Limits of Control. In C&C, Jarmusch gave us what was at essence a monochromatic home-video, of him parading his celebrity pals out in front of the camera, having impromptu conversations over the titular drinks and drags. The idea was cool (I love the idea of the RZA and the GZA swapping stories over coffee as much as any other sucker emcee), but the result was weirdly narcissistic; the dialogue was strained, given vague interest only because of the speakers and not the content of their speech. Limits of Control might be stylistically as far removed from C&C as possible, but the underlying premise is intact: a quirky film director who lives in his own brain, shooting a film script of pure indulgence. The result will split audiences down the middle. This is a love-it or hate-it film, and the sort of film that gets cautious acclimation from liberal art-types who spend their lives in front of the mirror trying to outdo Jarmusch’s hairstyle.

Isaach de Bankole plays a lone assassin in this film. He is dark, brooding, handsome; perfectly cast. In many ways Isaach (or the nameless ‘Lone Man’ as he is credited) is the film as well as the protagonist. The film moves as deliberately and slowly as he does. The film is as dialogueless as he is. The cinematography is as beautiful, mysterious and sure of it itself as he is. This Lone Man is operating, like the protagonist of a certain Kafka novel, under orders that we never come to understand. He spends the film searching out his target for assassination in Spain, but we can’t say for certain whether he’s under instruction or quenching a personal vendetta. So questions flower up in the viewer’s imagination but remain frustratingly unresolved, as we become familiar with the Lone Man and his modus operandi: order two espressos in separate cups, sit around in silence until a kooky contact shows up and asks, “Habla espanol?” Thereafter matchboxes containing messages or rewards get switched surreptitiously, a little eccentric soliloquy is performed by the contact and they part ways. Rinse and repeat for about 75% of the film.

Like the film and it tortuous pacing, the Lone Man hulks sombrely towards it conclusion. The little dialogue he does get himself into on the way does nothing other than affirm nihilism. One contact says, “There are those among us who are not among us,” to which he replies, “I am not among you.” Another contact says, “Nothing is real. Everything is imagined.” In one of the assassin’s more chatty moments he manages to string these syllables together with cold finality on the purpose of the film: “reality is arbitrary.” And the most telling, perhaps, is a slogan to be found painted in white capitals on the back of a bakkie, available to those who can read Spanish. It reads, “La vida no vale nada,” or ‘Life is worth nothing.’ The clues of Jarmusch’s solipsism are to be found scattered all over this film, not least in the countless intertextual references to his earlier works (Le Boxeur, anyone?).

And so, towards the end, (as we’re taught by mainstream cinema) we’re waiting for a massive moneyshot to make sense of all the unexplained gimmickry, because only facts, twists and plugged-up plotholes delivered in a quick six-spurt at the two hour mark could make something of the preceding meaninglessness. But it doesn’t come. I would never be bold enough to say that this film is shite. In fact, in shares some of the hallmarks of my favourite film-maker, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jarmusch might just have struck the rallying chord for independent cinema, in an age in which multiplicity of meaning, infinite interpretability, irony and personal celebrity are finally splayed out in the table for all to see, the linguistic and existential white noise we have to navigate to make sense of the world. But this film bores as much as it engages, frustrates as much as it rewards. It will come down eventually to personal tastes, and the reason I urge you to watch this, is because the films that seem to have something idling beneath the surface are the ones you have the most fun with afterwards, squeezing every ounce and reference out of it with your fellow watchers. But my verdict? Too much style, too little substance.

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