The Limits of Control

(Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan, 2009)


There are many surprising affinities between Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. Both films are located and shot in Europe, and benefit from non-American finance. Many languages fill both films – and some of their best moments involve problems of cross-cultural communication, from Brad Pitt drawling “Buongiorno” to Isaach De Bankolé trying to order two separate espressos.


Both films are, very explicitly, fables about cinema itself: Tarantino reaches for a grand Samuel Fuller-style metaphor, a film exploding in righteous flames and taking all villains with it; while Jarmusch has his characters talk about the pleasure of movies that let you quietly notice the details of everyday life – which is exactly the film that he himself is making. (A contemporaneous American meta-film trilogy opens up if we also include Michael Mann’s Public Enemies [2009] – or, at least, its last and best half-hour.)


Both Inglourious Basterds and The Limits of Control are about professional assassins, and both involve a fleeting but powerful allusion to our contemporary period: Bankolé in Spain and the Basterds in occupied France are all regarded as “terrorists” by the forces of evil conservatism: Bill Murray as a Dick Cheney-like USA politician, Christoph Waltz as the sadistic, scheming Nazi Colonel Landa. In this subtext, Jarmusch is savvier: his black hero seems stateless, whereas Tarantino’s white guys frequently recall rampaging soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan – or the torturers at Abu Ghraib.


And, finally, both films are about revenge. But it is on this point that they truly part company.


For Tarantino, violent revenge has become his dominant –perhaps his sole – subject. Jarmusch is more circumspect. I have heard the story that, in the immediate wake of 11 September 2001, stricken with a bad conscience, he felt he could not proceed with a violence-based project. Across Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and Broken Flowers (2005), he has deliberately made his work lighter, more mundane, less spectacular.


Although The Limits of Control returns to the Ghost Dog-style figure of the steely, graceful hired killer (an amalgam of movie types including Chow Yun-fat, Lee Marvin in Point Blank [1968] and Alain Delon’ssamourai’ in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic), this tai chi exponent eschews even the use of a gun – and when he finally kills, he accompanies it with the explanation that “revenge is useless”.


Although Jarmusch began in the late 1970s and Tarantino materialised in the early ’90s, they are similarly perceived by the filmgoing public as American intertextualists, true postmoderns who return to the heritage of Hollywood classics – but filtered through the re-inventions of this heritage by filmmakers in Europe and Asia.


Jarmusch takes a less familiar path than Tarantino, and risks losing some of his faithful fans in the process. The Limits of Control – a delicately stylised document of architecture, light, everyday rituals – is far more like In Sylvia’s City (2007) than Point Blank.


Indeed, in its strictly minimal plotting, the film goes all the way back to Jarmusch’s first, experimental feature Permanent Vacation (1980). Jacques Rivette appears to be a major influence here: the Rivette of Paris nous appartient (1961), Duelle (1975) and Secret défense (1997), all recycled in a deliberately anachronistic way.


Far from being a cutting-edge, cyber-age thriller, The Limits of Control – more radically than Wenders’ similarly motivated The End of Violence (1997) – is a film without mobile phones and computers, without suspense and action. Instead of guns there are guitars; instead of fights, flamenco.


There are certainly some generic elements – a naked femme fatale, an agent snatched in the street, coded messages and diamonds transmitted via matchboxes – but these elements are relativised, equalised; betrayals and kidnappings register no more (or less) dramatically than Bankolé walking through the streets, or the many idle, musing conversations with colourful strangers. And when our hero wants to go “off-world” and quit the infernal cycle of this plot, he simply throws away his matchbox and steps out into the daylight … (What a fascinating double-bill this film makes with that other great, minimalist cyber-thriller of the past decade, Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel [1998]!)


The Limits of Control does not display its director at the top of his form. It is a bravely uncommercial and admirably ambitious film – but also rather thin and superficial. Unlike Dead Man (1995), the masterpiece that Jarmusch has yet to match again, it is a work that gives up all its jewels on a single viewing.


But a specific, splendidly absent detail sets The Limits of Control directly against, and above, Inglourious Basterds.


Tarantino’s code of violent action and suspense expresses itself, above all, in a minute obsession with entrances and exits: how his killers get into and out of a basement bar or movie theatre. Jarmusch’s lone samurai, however, needs only to calmly look at a high-security, American military compound to instantly penetrate it: like a phantom, he just appears inside its walls, and then just as instantly escapes, disappears, flees.


Vengeance belongs to him – or whoever hired him – but this revenge is, after all, useless: it solves nothing, changes nothing.


The Limits of Control may not be an avant-garde masterpiece on par with Philippe Grandrieux’s Un lac (2008), but, in its gently resistant way, it does offer us what Petr Král once called “a secret image of the world”.

MORE Jarmusch: Mystery Train, Ghost Dog, Night on Earth, The Dead Don’t Die

© Adrian Martin August 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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