Click above to visit the entire site
I have no idea what Jim Jarmusch's new film, No Limits, No Control, might really be about — but that's all right. I figured out how to watch it early on. The way to watch it is "L'Eclisse — only different." The difference between Antonioni's classic and No Limits, No Control might be described by one word: color. It's not so much that the newer movie is shot in color as that it is peppered with colorful characters who, for the most part, make brief, ritualistic appearances.
No Limits, No Control very much is shot in color, however, and quite beautifully. Christopher Doyle's cinematography would be the star of the show, if it weren't for the star of the show, Isaach De Bankolé. In the end, the two work out a beautiful relationship: the Australian cinematographer's commitment to making Mr De Bankolé's skin look beautiful is unflagging, and the Ivoirian actor always looks worth the effort. Their little collaboration is so successful that Mr Jarmusch's movie lingers in the mind as a television commercial for a product too cool to name.
By the time the movie ended, I was persuaded that anything so vulgar as an explanation would have ruined the soufflé. The surface story is obvious and easy not only to follow but to predict as well. Mr De Bankolé, playing a "Lone Man," meets with some handlers in an airport lounge, where he receives instructions, in Spanish that he cannot understand, for a mission whose objective is not revealed to the audience until it is fulfilled. The Lone Man bides his time in Madrid, Seville, and a small town in what looks like the American Southwest (also in Spain, however). Venturing to cafés for faux-casual meetings with other agents constitutes the Lone Man's day job. In Madrid, he stays at an apartment that looks to have been extremely à la mode in 1975. In Seville, his quarters are a simple hotel bedroom, with metal bedframes and a lamp in the shape of the Torre del Oro. At his final accommodations, the furniture lies hidden beneath dropcloths. If there is a message here, it is wonderfully obscure. I promise not to feel idiotic when someone patiently explains it to me. I love secrets!
Even more mysterious is the Lone Man's attire, which appears to consist of three sharksin suits (one for each locale), three shirts to go with, and a pair of black dress boots. I can't say if underwear is included, because the Lone Man removes his jacket but nothing else, even when he sleeps, and he never unpacks his bag, either. His shirt, open at the neck, always looks crisp and clean, despite the meditative tai chi exercises that we see a bit of in the film's earlier scenes. The exercises look too slow and graceful to work up a sweat, but they also seem to be very intense; I'd want a wash. But Mr de Bankolé simply gives the waist of his trousers a tug and voilà: he's as ready as James Bond for anything.
The Lone Man's meetings with the other agents also follow a ritual. They begin with the agent's invariably asking, in Spanish, if it's true that the Lone Man doesn't speak Spanish. Get it? No? Matchboxes, invariably featuring a boxer and "Le Boxeur" against either a red or a blue backround, are exchanged, and, when he finds himself alone afterward, the Lone Man opens the box that he has just received and pulls out a piece of folded-up paper. He opens the paper, reads and memorizes the figures that are inscribed plainly but (to us) unintelligibly thereon, and, crumpling up the note, eats its, swallowing it down with a sip from one of the two espressos that he has ordered. (Was it always the right-hand cup?) After a while, you begin to think about what happens to the paper after it has been swallowed.
Indeed, the overall effect of No Limits, No Control is to make us inordinately aware of Mr De Bankolé's body. There is nothing inappropriately carnal about this interest; we are not invited to desire the actor. Rather, we are taught that the Lone Man treats his body as an extremely valuable asset. He also has habits of physical deliberation reminiscent of modern dance. The Lone Man's mind is not permitted to distract him with the irrelevancies and caprices that, as Pascal pointed out, make it impossible for us to sit quietly in a room. This centeredness makes him as irresistibly interesting as he would be in a conventional movie, where we knew what was really going on.
The few minutes that we get of Bill Murray's American, however, will persuade many viewers that there is no mystery to this movie at all. The American is a foul-mouthed brat who has preserved his dickwad adolescence right through to his fifties. As a representative of the red, white, and blue, he puts us completely in sympathy with the Lone Man's mission even before we're sure what it is. In contrast to every other character in the movie, the American acts wholly without circumspection and is even more at the mercy of his environment than the humans in WALL*E. When he demands to know how the Lone Man got into his office, "Imagination" is the answer, and we think that it might just have been that easy.
Playing the agents — an assortment of delicious cameo roles — is a starry line-up that includes a handful of Jarmusch veterans, of whom Tilda Swinton is easily the most remarkable. Buried beneath a platinum blonde wig, a Kabuki player's weekly allotment of pancake, and a bizarrely color-free cowgirl outfit, Ms Swinton works her poison-red lips fastidiously enough to put on an Edith Sitwell act. She talks, just for chat's sake I'm sure, about how much she likes "the old movies." Altogether she is an apparition incroyable, bursting with shoots of Antonioni-era "significance" that burn out as comedy. The Lone Man lets her talk, just as he lets the agent played by Paz de la Huerta, an exhibitionistic beauty who may remind some viewers of Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, arrange her naked limbs half up against his clothed ones when the two of them sleep side by side. (Well, she sleeps.) Gael García Bernal is almost as odd as Ms Swinton, but the miss is as good as a mile: his is the altogether too believable appartition of an actor good-naturedly mugging his way through a crazy part. John Hurt's performance made me wonder how he would frame his tales of participating in this project when talking about it with his friends.
No Limits, No Control is a movie for moviegoers. Its slow pace allows and even encourages comparative reflections, and Christopher Doyle's beautiful camera work is keyed to delight the attentive eye. You can't say that the movie is about nothing, because it's obviously about something (a political assassination), but its lack of interest in this story — especially in the suspense that usually attends such adventures — gives the film an abstract, almost autistic touch. Whatever Jim Jarmusch was up to, he has produced a sleek and gorgeous homage to the beauties of film. (May 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press