Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Limits of Control reviewed

Director: Jim Jarmusch USA 2009 116 mins Cert 15

Cast: Descas, Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, Isaach de Bankolé, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton

Some critics seem to be recurring to the parameters set by the big Hollywood studios as their criteria to review, and judge, movies. So, when a film such as Jim Jarmusch’ The Limits of Control appears in the horizon, they get shot down very quickly from the cinematic sky by these critics, as their structure and treatment do not fit with the conventionality of studio made films. What sets Avatar apart is the technical wizardry that allowed for the digital construction of its world. In terms of its structure and plot treatment, it is no different from Aliens, an earlier Cameron’s blockbuster.

The counter argument to this line of thought is that, while The Limits of Control is different, if not original and certainly beautifully crafted, from your average studio production in the cinematic treatment of its subject matter; it does not need any critics to be shot down.  It does it all on its own. The following question has to be asked: What is its subject matter? Or, to use different words: What was the point of making it?

The very beginning sets the cinematic treatment for the rest of the film: a scene, filmed in what seems to be a changing cubicle, carefully constructed in such a manner that pushes the viewer out of balance. From that point on clues are constantly being thrown at us to be taken away a minute or so afterwards in a series of ritualistic shots that, after a while, stop in getting my subconscious mind to lay a smile across my lips because of their repetitiveness. Every scene has been beautifully composed and photographed – the film is set in Spain, with a painterly quality in their treatment, acting as a continuous visual bass to the incongruous figure of the stranger (Isaach de Bankolé), The Man With No Name who denies to be an American gangster when asked by some children following him in a street in Seville, in spite of looking and acting as one (his manner of walking, his gaze, his suit, being reminiscent of Lee Marvin in Point Blank). If he was or not a gangster you will have to make up your mind after the last scene – or, should I say, black out? Others could interpret it as an homage to such films. Jarmusch delights in superimposing such dissonant images on his carefully constructed scenes.

The premise on which The Limits of Control is based upon is a riddle, as the nameless Man in a kind of ritual journey through Spain with hardly a smile posed on his lips solving one riddle after the other, many set in such presumptuous language that made my hair stand up in horror. This character also reminded me of the contract killer played by a young Alain Delon in that classic 1967 French film noir, Le Samouraï, by Jean-Pierre Melville, but without the canary. However, for riddles to work they need to be short, sharp and with underlying humour. None of these characteristics are present in The Limits of Control (apart of some brief humorous flashes): it just goes on and on, becoming more and more intellectually presumptuous and vacuous with every frame projected on the screen, ending in a frankly disappointingly prosaic and well trodden formula.

If it did try to be a thriller, it fails to work as such as it is too repetitive and no dramatic tension is built. If it did try to be a film asking existential questions about how our world actually works, it fails because it is too hermetic in its plot and cinematic treatment. If it did try to be a big joke at the expenses of art house audiences, it fails as it is too obscure. I found it to be a very infuriating film as I still enjoyed it, in spite of feeling that I was cheated at the end. It is beautifully photographed, staged and acted, but it felt like attempting to see the whole of the contents of the Louvre or the National Gallery in just one visit: its very beauty becomes unbearable, the eyes and the mind drift away.

On the positive side, it has a good cast of actors, Isaach de Bankolé giving the right tone to the character of The Man, while Tilda Swinton and John Hurt have brief but brilliant appearances. Gael García Bernal just plays himself, as usual I am afraid to say – I really would like to see him actually acting, for a change. The film is also visually stunning, with the caveats already mentioned, and we got to travel through Spain in its excellent rail network (I know, I have used it).

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