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Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers: A Portrait Of Solitude

Broken Flowers"Life sometimes brings strange surprises." This is the first line of an anonymous letter sent in a pink envelope that begins the cross-country journey of Don Johnston (Bill Murray) in Jim Jarmusch's wonderfully subtle and quietly profound new film, Broken flowers. Winner of the Grand Prix (second-place) award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Broken flowers transforms almost imperceptibly from a rather perverse exercise in extreme comic minimalism to a poignant examination of solitude..5

The film's credit sequence follows the pink envelope as it makes its way from being deposited in a mailbox to being delivered to Don's door. We first encounter Don sitting motionless on the couch in front of the TV as his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, finally tiring of his chronic philandering. She no longer wants to be in a relationship wit, in her words, an "over-the-hill Don Juan." Appropriately, Don is watching the film "The Private Life of Don Juan" as this is happening. Jarmusch often uses television to comment on the film's action, as a kind of mass media, pop culture Greek chorus..5

Bill Murray's performance is the film's anchor and reason for being. At first glance, Murray's character here is another in the line of ironic, deadpan personalities that has been his specialty in such films as Ed Wood (1994), Rushmore (1998), Lost in Translation (2003), and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). However, in Broken flowers, Murray achieves a new level of minimalism, registering his character's emotional with the tiniest shifts in facial expression and demeanor..5

Don, this impenetrable and mysterious character, whose Kabuki-mask visage is often obscured by dark shades, comes across in the early scenes as rather cold and distant, however outwardly friendly he may be to others. This prevents the film from slipping into sentimentality, since Murray does not play to audience sympathies, but instead conveys Don's metamorphosis gradually, until in the final scene it is clear that a profound change has occurred within him..5

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Neil Young's first solo album, could also serve as an alternate title for Jarmusch's film. (Incidentally, Young was the subject of Jarmusch's concert documentary Year of the Horse [1997] and composed the score for his existential western Dead Man [1995].) Much of the film is set in anonymous suburbia, Don traveling stretches of nothing between stops on his road trip. Jarmusch often frames Don in stark symmetrical compositions that emphasize his isolation. The facelessness of the terrain connects closely with Don's heretofore unexamined life..5

However, Don is forced to examine his romantic past by the mysterious letter. The writer of the letter, one of Don's many former lovers, informs him that twenty years ago, he fathered a son who may now be looking for him. His Jamaican next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright, in a marvelous performance), urges the reluctant Don to search out this woman. Don is able to narrow it down to five possible women, one of whom ad died in the interim. Winston fancies himself an amateur sleuth, using the Internet to track down the women's addresses and plan Don's itinerary..5

These four encounters form the catalyst for Don's personal transformation. In these hilarious, odd, and poignant encounters (often within the same scene), Don glimpses alternate possibilities of what his life may have been like if he had settled down with any one of them. In the first, and funniest, visit, Don sees Laura (Sharon Stone), a widow of a NASCAR driver who is now a professional closet organizer..5

Laura has a coquettish young daughter named, fittingly enough, Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Although this scene is mostly played for laughs, we can sense Laura's loneliness in her farewell to Don. The second old flame, Dora (Frances Conroy), lives a regimented existence running a real-estate business with her husband (Christopher McDonald). they live in a charmless pre-fab house, and Don has dinner with them, eating from plates with the food arranged in geometric anal-retentive compositions..5

Dora's pained glances to Don as her husband pulls out Dora's old photos speak volumes about her unhappiness. The third woman, Carmen (Jessica Lange), an "animal communicator, " pointedly rejects any possibility of reconciliation with Don, and he is rudely rebuffed by Carmen's hostile receptionist (Chloe Sevigny). Don's visit to Penny (Tilda Swinton), who lives in a seedy part of town, turns out to be a violent encounter..5

Whether Don does indeed find the answers he is seeking, I will leave for viewers to discover. But it will be clear to attentive audiences, especially those familiar with Jarmusch's body of work, that neat resolutions and glib closure are not what this film or its filmmaker is about. At the screening I attended, Jarmusch spoke after the film about his preference for leaving things unspoken and unexplained in his films..5 Broken flowers, mostly due to the presence of such well-known actors as Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, and Jessica Lange, has been described by some as "commercial, " which strikes me as an absurd description. The film's odd and singular rhythms and lack of conventional resolution are quite consistent with his previous work, and only seems conventional on its surface..5

Jarmusch also described how he would watch Japanese films without subtitles, attempting to glean meaning from character movement, expressed emotion, and other visual cues without depending on dialogue. To me, this was quite an apt statement, for two reasons. One is that Jarmusch's films often subtle East Asian influences, most explicitly in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)..5

The other is that Broken flowers brought to my mind an earlier Japanese film, Ikiru (1952). Although stylistically very different from Jarmusch's film, Ikiru features an anonymous civil servant forced by impending death to change the way he lives his life. Circumstances compel him to examine his own existence in much the same manner that Don must in Broken flowers..5

Near the end of the film, Don relates his philosophy to a young man he meets on the street. "The past is gone, " Don says. "The future isn't here yet, whatever that is. So all there is, is this -- the present." This statement, along with the film's final shot, hints at the great change that has come to him..5

It is a testament to the brilliant marriage of Bill Murray's performance and Jim Jarmusch's direction that this change comes across without relying on grand epiphanies or melodramatic moments. Jim Jarmusch, with Broken Flowers has created a remarkable film that gains resonance with repeated viewing. Jarmusch offers us a uniquely comic yet ultimately melancholy portrait of solitude.

By Christopher Bourne - I am a freelance writer based in NYC.  

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