Review by Brad Nguyen
I’m always up in arms about empty film references but what distinguishes Jim Jarmusch from, say, a Quentin Tarantino, is how he uses his film references as a jumping off point to make something new and meaningful. The point of the exercise is not in ‘getting’ the reference but in where he takes it. In The Limits of Control, as in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch is riffing off Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai but reconfigures it to create his most overtly political film yet.
What Jarmusch takes from Le Samourai is its alienated assassin whose spartan life is defined by ritual. We meet the nameless assassin (Isaach De Bankolé) as he dons an immaculate suit in an airport toilet, meets a couple of men who give him cryptic instructions and follow him as he meets up with a disparate group of odd people, each with nonsensical instructions to further the assassin on his way. He lives his life by a strict code: no sex, no guns, two espressos in two cups. Like Alain Delon in Le Samourai, Issach De Bankolé is more or less expressionless and silent. But where Le Samourai’s assassin stood for the modern alienated man, the empty rituals of Jarmusch’s protagonist are symbolic of genre/Hollywood cinema.
The Limits of Control may on the surface level be about an assassin’s encounters with a series of spies, but the film might also be best described as being about a filmgoer’s encounters with a series of critics. The designated job of a film critic is to assign a value to a film but what they are really doing is making an argument to determine the way you experience a film. For example, when David Stratton says that The Bourne Ultimatum is ‘nauseating’, he is convincing you that a film with handheld camerawork should be judged as bad and unworthy of consumption. The spies that De Bankolé meets all attempt to engage him in a philosophical conversation – what they are doing is making an argument that he (and we the audience) open ourselves to the endless possibilities of life and cinema, that there is more to all this than just ‘going through the motions’ as capitalism requires. Tilda Swinton’s character tells him that she enjoys films where not much happens and two people are just talking, one of the more obvious points where a character is commenting on the film we are watching. So the film displays a tension between scenes of ‘going through the motions’ – i.e. the generic assassin plot – and scenes where the conventional narrative stops and the dead space allows us to experience the small idiosyncratic pleasures that Jarmusch has to offer: Tilda Swinton’s ridiculous outfit, John Hurt’s monologue on the roots of the word ‘bohemian’, the view from a train window of Spain’s landscapes, Paz de la Huerta’s ass. The point Jarmusch is making is that though the audience’s pleasure from cinema might be derived from ritual, as in, the strict adherence to formula, such modes of viewing deprive us of pleasure, just as Issach De Bankolé’s rituals deprive him of the pleasure of banging Paz de la Huerta. There are no universal referents for determining a ‘good film’: “everything is subjective”. There is so much more to gain from art when one learns to dispense with the capitalist imperative towards homogeneity.