The term ‘limits of control’ is lifted from the title of an essay by legendry beatnik author William S. Burroughs that talks about how language is primarily used as a control system. This, coupled with an open quote from Rimbaud’s poem Le Bâteau Ivre, makes Jim Jarmusch’s artistic aspirations for his new film pretty obvious.
Some could say this is pretentious nonsense, others that it is an interesting experiment with the cinematic medium. And when faced with a barrage of cod-philosophical statements like ‘everything is subjective’ or ‘reality is arbitrary’ within the first five minutes, there may well be a few people shifting uncomfortably in their seats, mentally compartmentalising The Limits Of Control into the former category.
However, that sort of first impressions assessment might be reductive, because, despite its faults, The Limits Of Control is an interesting film. It may be slightly tedious to watch, but it will grow on you afterward – after maturing in the subconscious, so to speak.
Threaded together around the barest of plots, the film centres on French-Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé, a hitman sent to Spain on a covert mission; what that mission is, though, is left largely unexplained. This entails De Bankolé’s assassin, know only as Lone Man (all the characters in the film are given this sort of monosyllabic moniker) waiting around in hotel rooms, drinking espressos, doing lots of walking and occasionally meeting a new contact, who proceed to give him enigmatic instructions like ‘wait for the bread’.
This may all sound rather dry and, in many respects, it is. But it is also a strikingly beautiful film, thanks largely to the stark cinematography constructed by the DoP, Christopher Doyle. It is washed through with a pallid, cold aesthetic, full of strange framing, extreme close-ups of mundane items and distortive camera angles that distance the viewer, removing any feeling of narrative interaction or character empathy.
Jarmusch also uses the continuing visual motif of clinical whites offset by streaks of vivid scarlet, symbolising the dichotomy of De Bankolé’s outer impassivity and simmering internal violence, which is also reflected in his practice of the tai chi martial art. This conflicting duality can even be drawn from De Bankolé’s physical appearance. His high cheekbones but demonic eyes make him one part Calvin Klein underwear model, one part gargoyle (think Didier Drogba crossed with Willem Dafoe).
However, while De Bankolé resolutely stays the impenetrable blank canvas, Jarmusch allows his all-star supporting cast to apply broad brushstrokes of colour in their roles of the Lone Man’s contacts. Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal and Bill Murray all turn up during De Bankolé’s Spanish odyssey, each imparting clues/codes about the nature of the conspiracy De Bankolé has been employed to eliminate.
These soliloquies take the form of meta, self-referential riddles that aim to strip away the veil of cinematic verisimilitude. At one point Swinton comments to De Bankolé on how she ‘sometimes likes films where people sit there not saying anything’, which is followed by drawn out moment as the two sit watching the pigeons…in silence. Later on, De Bankolé sees a billposter from a film staring Swinton’s distinctively dressed character, Blonde.
Each of the contacts seem to highlight one or more areas of the arts or subversive counterculture (music, cinema, painting, bohemianism, hallucinogenic drugs, promiscuity and, most bizarrely of all, molecules), all of which are then disdainfully cited by De Bankolé’s mark towards the end of the film – raising the possibility of The Limits Of Control being a sly allegory about European culture’s struggle against American consumerism.
For all these high-minded ideals about postmodernist expressionism, then, it is strange (perhaps intentional) irony that by far the most interesting aspect of The Limits Of Control is the girl who spends every scene in the buff. Nude, played by Spanish-American actress Paz de la Huerta, poses and pouts her way through her scenes, radiating a magnetic aura of pure primal lust. She is the temptress personified, but displays a faint vulnerability and offbeat, black humour.
The Limits Of Control will polarise audiences. As said above, it is tedious in places to watch. Very little happens, except the constant repetitions of rituals. There is a groove to it, but it’s certainly wonky. Those with a passing knowledge of semiotics will probably find the way Jamusch has attempted to deconstruct the arbitrary way signs are attached meaning intriguing. But it also lags and meanders, so intent is it to create the sense of dream-like unreality and retaining its ultra-minimalist feel.
Case in point, when the denouement is finally reached, the build up is brushed aside with a casual “I used my imagination,” from De Bankolé. Brilliant or maddening, you decide.
Jamurch, whose previous films include Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai and Broken Flowers, has created a psychedelic indie symphony in the key of cool minor. Some will love his self-indulgent prog-filmmaking. Others think it’s a load of old tosh – kind of like Pink Floyd albums.
Me? Well, at the time I thought it was rather on the dry side, but it has grown on me with retrospect. Would I like to watch it again then? Probably not. Once was enough.