So here's the thing.
There's a scene in Jim Jarmusch's new film, The Limits Of Control, (see the simultaneously misleading and much too spoiler-filled trailer here) that I found rather fascinating. In it, the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while, someone sits at his table, and ask in Spanish "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" "No," the man says. The new person then starts talking for a while about whether wooden instruments (like violins) retain the memory of every note ever played on them. Meanwhile, the man sits silently, unengaged in the matter being talked about. Eventually he pulls out a box of matches and puts it on the table. After a while, the other person finishes his conversation, picks up the matchbox, replaces it with a different matchbox, and leaves. The man opens the new matchbox, and finds a small piece of paper folded up. He unfolds it to find a short coded message. He reads it, folds it up again, eats the paper, and drinks his coffee.
There's another scene that I found similarly fascinating. In it, the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while, someone sits at his table, and asks in Spanish "You don't speak Spanish, do you?" "No," the man says. The new person then starts talking for a while about dreams and about how she enjoys watching old films because they give an insight into a long-gone world. Meanwhile, the man sits silently, unengaged in the matter being talked about. Eventually he pulls out a box of matches and puts it on the table. After a while, the other person finishes her conversation, picks up the matchbox, replaces it with a different matchbox, and leaves. The man opens the new matchbox, and finds a small piece of paper folded up. He unfolds it to find a short coded message. He reads it, folds it up again, eats the paper, and drinks his coffee.
But I really have to tell you about this other scene in which the unnamed central character sits at a table at a Spanish cafe. He orders two espressos, in separate cups, for himself. After a while... well, you get the idea.
What's interesting about these scenes (which play out maybe six or seven times throughout the film, usually at a cafe but not always, and with a different person sitting at the man's table each time) is that the only obvious point of difference in each variation on the scene is the subject of conversation. And our main character isn't interested. There's clearly no meaning, no hidden code in the conversation, since the only point of actual importance in the exchange was the opening codeword question about speaking Spanish. The various conversations, which range in topics from the origin of the term 'bohemian' to whether you could study the molecules in something to discover everywhere it ever was, are clearly just points of obsession for the different characters.
But there's another interesting series of scenes in the film. The Lone Man (as the character is credited) comes to his hotel room to find a naked woman on his bed. She's one of his contacts, who has arrived several days early, and she is unhappy to learn he doesn't have sex when he's on a job. Cut to a shot of the woman (whose role is listed in the credits as Nude) sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she models a entirely transparent raincoat for him, naked under the coat. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she swims in the hotel pool, naked, while the fully-clothed Lone Man watches her. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. That night, she sits, naked, on the couch next to the fully clothed Lone Man. Cut to a shot of the woman sleeping naked next to the fully-clothed Lone Man. The Lone Man goes out the next day. And this day the Lone Man actually acquires the object he needs to give to her, and she gives him the information he needs in return, and then she leaves.
Basically, what I'm trying to express to you is that there's a lot of repetition in the film. In a lot of ways, the level of repetition probably makes the film sound quite boring, although it wasn't. The Limits of Control is one film where I walked out unsure whether I liked it or not, although the more I think about it the more I realise I really did enjoy it. I think. Far from making the film boring, the repetition really added to the film, establishing a rhythm in the film and giving it a comfortable feel. And Jarmusch plays with the repetition, using variations in the routines as the source of a surprising amount of humour. (There's a very funny moment involving the Lone Man's developing interaction over time with a waiter that may be one of my favourite moments in the festival.)
And yet, for a film that (if we're honest) is largely plotless, a bunch of encounters where almost all of the substantive dialogue consists of irrelevant monologues, there's a very clear sense of direction in the film. We as viewers don't know exactly what his ultimate task will be (although it's not exactly difficult to guess), but despite that uncertainty there's a real sense of dread that increasingly fills the film, even as we sit through these bizarre scenes with his various contacts. It's going somewhere, every interaction may appear meaningless to the audience but they all move the Lone Man forward, bringing him one step closer to his ultimate goal. Even having seen the film, I don't know exactly why he had to do what he ultimately did, what the events were that justified the hiring of the Lone Man, nor exactly who hired him.
But I think that's part of the point of the film. This film belongs to a very specific, recognisable genre, but it's stripped of everything extraneous to the core of the genre. And I mean everything. Hitchcock used to talk about the McGuffin in a film - it's a term that refers to that thing around which the film's plot revolves, the device that motivates the action in the film, but that the audience itself doesn't actually care about beyond its role in actually starting the film's events. And The Limits Of Control is so stripped to its bare bones that even the McGuffin is absent - the reasons why the Lone Man has to do what he does are irrelevant to us as viewers, it just matters that he does them. The characters aren't actually characters, but just stand in the position of characters.* In that way, the pointless but enjoyable conversations seem almost like a commentary on the way this genre, or indeed any genre, relies on pointless irrelevancies to fill the screening time and provide the elements of interest in the film.
* (In addition to Lone Man and Nude, the film's other characters are named in the credits as Creole, French, Waiter, Violin, Blonde, Molecules, Guitar, Mexican, Driver, American, Second American, Flamenco Club Waitress, Flight Attendant, Street Kids #1, #2, and #3, Flamenco Dancer, Flamenco Singer, and Flamenco Guitarist. Not one person in the film actually has a name.)
I do have to mention the cast. The film has a great cast, with people like Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Bill Murray making appearances, and everyone gives very good performances. It can't be easy to play someone who by definition is just a bare cypher, especially when most of the actors really only get a scene or two to play with, but as they deliver their monologues the characters come alive - they feel like they could be real people breaking through the plot devices they might be expected to be. In some ways, that almost seems like part of the film's commentary on the genre - where most films focus on the main character and dismiss those people that make a single appearance as simple plot functionaries, here we walk out of the cinema knowing more about the personalities of each of the Lone Man's contacts than we do about the Lone Man himself. (Indeed, the final scene in the airport seems to suggest that the Lone Man may be a very different person when he's not working than the silent professional that we saw. Assuming, of course, that that was the real-life Lone Man we saw.)
Now, this film is not for everybody. In fact I suspect it's not for most people. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 39% rating, while Metacritic gives it a score of 40. And I can completely understand the film getting this type of poor reception. As I said, it took me a few days to decide whether or not I even liked it. But I do feel that, once you realise what the film is doing, and just allow yourself to be subsumed into this film world, recognising the constant repetition as providing the base for some interesting variations on a theme, then I think the film can work for you. At the very least, it's both familiar and unlike anything I've seen before. The films of Jim Jarmusch are an unfortunate gap in my cinematic knowledge, and I've been meaning to address that failing for a while but never quite got around to. But someone who could make a film like this as fascinating and intriguing as it was is someone whose work I really need to explore further. I don't feel that I've even begun to grasp what Jarmusch is doing in the film, but it's stayed with me a lot more than a number of festival films that I unequivocally liked, and I look forward to grappling with the film in the future.