Broken Flowers
a film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch


The new film from Jim Jarmusch bears the manifest imprint of his film-making, in both style and substance. But he is not merely repeating himself or dragging out his favorite hobby horse. He amplifies and illuminates his themes with the subtle dexterity and patient cinematic craft that have made all his films engaging, and ends up with a picture that is as challenging, thoughtful and effective as any I've seen this year. It won the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and while the hsitory of that award is somewhat mixed, in this case, it was well-deserved.

The issues of identity, memory, imagination, human interconnection and meaning with which he is grappling are the same ones he raised in his earlier films. The signature pacing, with its relaxed rhythms and careful observation of scene and character is there - as is his use of quirky, out-of-the-mainstream musical accompaniment. But he is seeking to go further here, to come at his subject (which an earlier and more literate generation might have identified as "existential alienation") from a new point of view, bolstered by the insights of his earlier explorations - which are still as "true" as they ever were.

The story follows the fortunes of retired computer tycoon Don Johnston (Bill Murray) who lives in a beautifully decorated, sterile home in a suburban neighborhood that could be anywhere in America. We meet him on the day his live-in girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) - the latest, we are led to believe, of a long series - announces she is moving out, and the day a mysterious anonymous letter arrives.

The letter purports to be from a woman with whom Don had a relationship twenty years earlier, who is writing to let him know that a son he fathered - about whom he has never known - may be coming to look for him. But the note is unsigned and there are no identifying details, not even a legible postmark. Don shares the letter with his next-door neighbor, Winston, an Ethiopian immigrant whose, busy, family-filled, life is the antithesis of Don's own.

While Don reacts to the letter with the same kind of numb incomprehension with which he greeted Sherry's departure (clearly a pattern with him) Winston fastens on the letter as something to motivate and transform Don- whose isolation and alienation is painful for his friend to watch. A lover of mystery novels and films and a self-taught sleuth, Winston sets up a scheme to help Don solve the riddle.

He sends Don on a cross country trip to visit the four women with whom he had relationships during the appropriate time-period (a fifth has died in a car accident). Don's passive resistance slowly gives way to an interest that is on the surface ironically detached - yet hints at something much deeper.

Don dutifully visits each of the four women and the visits reflect what Don's life was, what it might have been, and what it has become. Don passes through these experiences - which take on some of the mythical quality of the "trials" of the "hero's journey" - with an aloofness that has clearly become a prison for him. But present in it all is a growing sense of the intense longing, which crystallizes around the idea of his son and becomes the emerging center of Don's story.

This theme - of the human condition of longing for something that can never even be clearly defined, much less attained - is a recurrent focus in Jarmusch's work (as it was in the work of such writers as Camus, Sartre and Dostoyevsky). The concept is that our life is some sort of "quest" in which both the object and the process are "absurd" - in the existentialist sense of "without inherent meaning" - in which consciously choosing to experience the events and make meaning out of them is an act of both defiance and self-confirmation.

This is deep stuff for the movies - but Jarmusch gets away with it (for some people at any rate) the same way his Existentialist predecessors did, by couching it in narrative. By making a story out of what is essentially a philosophical exploration, Jarmusch is able to give it an emotional, visceral existence that takes it out of the realm of the purely speculative and theoretical. At the same time, Gauguin's three questions, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" are real and inescapable - questions all of us must confront (even if we choose to try to ignore them, as Don has) and to which our personal answers palpably shape our lives.

Jarmusch leaves the story appropriately unfinished - the same way events in life (as Don's meetings with the women from his past have amply proved) are never finished. And the consequences of those events are neither predictable nor fully comprehensible. Don is greeted with reactions that range from welcome, to discomfort, to denial, to fury, and his own reactions to the events that unfold and their ramifications in his life although not hard to imagine, are impossible to foresee with any certainty.

As in his past films - especially early works like Mystery Train and Stranger Than Paradise - Jarmusch is not so much making stories as he is making a sort of cinematic ink-blot, in which viewers are invited to see their own personal psychology reflected. It's a parallel process to what is happening on the screen, as Don's process of looking back at his story - his life and the ways he inhabits it - creates and defines (as much as it "reveals") who he is.

Like some of the existential theologians Jarmusch finds in the confrontation with the absurd nature of human existence neither nihilism nor irrational optimism, but rather the implication of the spontaneous invention of creativity, beauty and love for its own sake. It's not a foregone conclusion - only a possibility, and Jarmusch's films invite us to join him in exploring what a world based on such a possibility might be like.

He has attracted a stellar cast, who presumably worked for the union-scale pay that Jarmusch's independent films offer because they saw something of value in the production and wanted to be part of it. Fine actresses including Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, and Julie Delpy use their few minutes of screen time - from short scenes to Swinton's two or three lines - to create resonant miniature portraits of some of the women whose life-courses have intersected Don's.

Bill Murray carries the film in a sense, but it is difficult to know whether Murray is becoming a better actor or simply being used more effectively by directors. As in last year's Lost In Translation, Murray's ironic detachment - that may border on a psychotic lack of affect - is used to express the alienation and isolation of his character.

But alienation is not an emotion, it is a state of being - it is not something "acted" as much as "represented," and while Murray's impassivity and opacity may easily be taken for alienation, that is an inference the audience draws from the situation created and presented by the director as much as from any "work" on the actor's part.

Yet Murray makes Don interesting in some way. The tension between his monumental passivity and the human longing for active contact with the world (which we must suspect is common to all of us, and therefore to Don) is the driving force that moves the narrative forward and gets the audience engaged. Murray does just enough to arouse and then sustain our suspicions that there is something going on beneath the listless and apathetic exterior - although it is central to the film's internal logic that neither we nor he ever have more than a vague glimpse of what that might be.

The production values reflect Jarmusch's long career and the relationships he has established in the film community. He enlisted veteran cinematographer Frederick Elmes - who worked on the Jarmucsh films Coffee and Cigarettes and Night On Earth as well as on high-profile independent projects like Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and Tod Solondz's Storytelling and mainstream films like The Hulk and Kinsey. Elmes brings his considerable talents to bear to produce visual images that strongly reinforce the sense of flatness, solitariness and distance - of Don as a stranger not only in the various American Landscapes he visits, but even in his own home.

The choice of sets and settings is precise and evocative. The houses, yards and neighborhoods that the women Don visits inhabit - as well as his own home and neighborhood, and the cafe where he and Winston meet - offer colorful, very detailed but also representational glimpses into American society at this particular moment. The landscapes have a very personal quality - yet no details are supplied that make them specific. They could be anywhere, northeast, midwest, northwest, south. What happens in the film on the external level (as on the internal) happens both everywhere ("No matter where you go, there you are.") and nowhere in particular.

Music has always been one of Jarmusch's interests. The use of popular music to underscore, amplify or even counterpoint the action of film has been an aspect that Jarmusch understands and exploits as well as anyone in the field. As in his earlier films, Jarmusch picks quirky, non-mainstream but highly-charged music. Here he uses the work of Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke as the center, but also includes such things as a two-minute piece of a Marvin Gaye song.

Jarmusch has carved out a place for himself in independent film - making movies that reflect his own particular vision and concerns in a way few American directors are able to in today's highly-commercialized and tightly-controlled market. His work examines the "big questions" of existence, but manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging way, with humor and compassion. Broken Flowers is the latest - and one of the best - in a very accomplished catalogue.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z