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Tilda Swinton plays Blonde in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. She likes to talk about old movies. (Photo Teresa Isasi/©Teresa Isasi 2008)
Tilda Swinton plays Blonde in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. She likes to talk about old movies. (Photo Teresa Isasi/©Teresa Isasi 2008)

It's pretty to look at, but what the hell are they talking about? Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

The Limits of Control

  • Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
  • Starring Isaach De Bankolé , Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal and Bill Murray
  • Classification:14A

Taking its title from an essay on language by beat writer William S. Burroughs, and its threadbare plot from hit-men movies like John Boorman's Point Blank , Jim Jarmusch's latest film is more about concept than content. Only a few events happen in this minimalist film, and most of them keep getting repeated through most of its running time.

A man identified only as Lone Man (Ivory Coast-born actor Isaach De Bankolé) practises tai chi in an airport washroom and then goes to meet two other men, one identified as Creole (French actor Alex Descas) and the other as his translator, who says everything that we see in subtitles again in English (Jean-François Stévenin). The redundancy serves as an appetizer for the many echoes to come.

Lone Man goes to an apartment building in Madrid, an odd castle-like folly from the sixties. He repeatedly visits Madrid's Reina Sofia art museum and stares at just one painting on each visit. He wears a purple iridescent suit and matching shirt, apparently for days (later, when he travels, he dons a different outfit for each city). One day, in his apartment, he finds a naked woman on his bed (Paz de la Huerta), who's wearing spectacles and holding a revolver. She invites him to have sex but he says no to sex, cellphones or guns while he's working. Lone Man is very single-minded.

From time to time, Lone Man goes to a cafe and orders two espressos in separate cups, apparently a signal that encourages various people to join him and to state as an opener, "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" He meets characters with names like Guitar, Blonde and Mexican. Blonde, played by Tilda Swinton in a white wig and sunglasses, ruminates about old movies. John Hurt (Guitar) discusses the history of bohemians. Spanish actor Luis Tosar, as Violin, talks about music. Japanese actress Youki Kudoh, identified in the credits as Molecules, talks about science. Later, Gael Garcia Bernal, called Mexican, discusses hallucinogens.

With each new character, Lone Man exchanges Le Boxeur brand match boxes. Sometimes they contain a paper with coded instructions which Lone Man reads and swallows.

The Limits of Control is shot by Christopher Doyle, best known for his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, and the film looks gorgeous as De Bankolé, with his impassive cheekbones and lean dancer's body, is framed against various red-and-orange backdrops. Also beautiful are the three paintings which Lone Man views at the museum - a Cubist violin by Juan Gris, a nude by Roberto Fernandez Balbuena, and the rumpled-white-sheet painting by Arte Povera painter Antoni Tapies, each of which is visually linked to scenes in the film. Throughout the film, the droning ambient music (Japanese band Boris, Earth with Bill Frisell, and Jarmusch's own group Bad Rabbit) contributes to the mood of fluid uneasiness.

The spell of the camera work and soundtrack is occasionally broken by the pretensions of the dialogue. Too often, characters make pronouncements that sound as though they were inspired by sixties' acid posters: "The universe has no centre and no edges," or "Reality is arbitrary," or "The best films are like dreams you're never really sure you had."

After more than 80 minutes of this mildly diverting art installation loop of painterly images and strange encounters, the film's conclusion is a distinct buzz kill. As his mysterious mission comes to an end, Lone Man encounters a character called American, played by Bill Murray as a Dick Cheney figure (he calls out to an assistant named "Addington," the same name as Cheney's controversial chief of staff, David Addington).

Abruptly, you feel the gravitational yank of a forced landing, in a denouement that can only be interpreted as a thudding allegory about the confrontation between the Imagination and the Real. What a drag it is to descend from coolly blank to boringly meaningful.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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