Broken Flowers (15)

Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch
On general release from 21st October 2005

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

A deserving winner of the Jury Prize in Cannes, Jim Jarmusch's new film about a middle-aged Lothario shaken out of his lethargic existence by the news that he has a young son who may be looking for him, is a sharply observed and bleakly funny tale about loneliness and the fleeting nature of life. Wilfully enigmatic and constantly subverting audience expectations, this superb ensemble piece is like a fresh tonic in a hitherto dire film year. ***** out of five

Set in an unspecified city in present-day America, Broken Flowers tells the story of Don Johnston, the middle-aged owner of a computer business who is ostensibly affluent enough to spend the days in semi-retirement in his luxurious home. He has become so detached from life around him that when his latest girlfriend Sherri leaves him, he shows little emotion. A pink letter arrives in his mailbox that day, addressed to him by one of his former partners, who tells him that he has a son from their relationship twenty years ago and that the boy has gone on a road trip, possibly on the search for his father. Don shows the letter to his Ethiopian neighbour Winston who, being a fan of detective stories, is intrigued by the sender's refusal to reveal her identity. After comprehensive research, Winston arranges flights and accommodation for Don, and instructs him to pay his former girlfriends from that time a visit and to look out for some clues to solve the mystery. Eventually Don accepts and sets out on the long journey.

Broken Flowers, like Cronenberg's A History of Violence before it, has been labelled in various quarters as its director's calling card for the mainstream, and it does - to some degree - represent Jarmusch's most accessible film to date. Yet it undermines the expectations of a mainstream audience so consistently and consciously that one is left with the reassuring feeling that Jarmusch has remained true to his own style and themes. In spite of its outward appearance (the cast assembled for Broken Flowers is the most renowned in Jarmusch's oeuvre yet), the picture is anything but streamlined, instead it's intriguingly, even teasingly enigmatic. Don's reasons for making the journey after his initial reluctance are never clearly stated, nor does the film at any point give us a sense of location, of where Don lives and where he travels to. Jarmusch treats the mystery element of his plot in similar fashion: like Winston, we get hooked on the mystery of which of the four women might have sent Don the letter, and the search for his son. Like Winston, we see the colour pink (the letter is delivered in a pink envelope, written with a typewriter on pink paper) as the key to the solution, and Jarmusch cleverly uses it as a MacGuffin to construct a continuing story around it.

But the film's real interests lie elsewhere, in the vignettes that follow as Don comes face to face with the women from his past, and ultimately, faces up to his own loneliness. Alienation and detachment have been a defining theme in Jarmusch's films, suggested here in Bill Murray's performance which is reminiscent of Buster Keaton in its minimalism and richness of expression. Most astonishing is how fresh it still feels after similar turns in the films of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

The encounters with his former girlfriends are all about Don's realisation that somewhere along the line he has lost his life out of sight while everybody else has moved on. We can assume that one of the reasons (or perhaps the only reason) Don makes the trip is to reassure himself that he is still important to these women, yet the opposite is true, in spite of their differing reactions. All four meetings are subtly and memorably realised by Jarmusch and the performances from Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton are very good to excellent. Don's reunion with Dora Anderson is the strongest segment of all: Dora, a former hippie chick, has turned conservative, running a real-estate business with her husband, and lives in a stylish but clinical house. She is bewildered and slightly embarrassed by his presence, and the dinner with her husband only reinforces Don's disillusionment as he comes to realise that she has found her place in life and that he plays no part in it anymore. The scene beautifully captures the fundamental truth about our constant change as human beings and the fleeting nature of life, and it is played superbly by Murray, Frances Conroy and Christopher MacDonald. Its tone, as that of the film as a whole, is one of understatement and finely balanced, intrinsically linked humour and sadness.

Comic highlights include a charming performance by Jeffrey Wright as hobby sleuth Winston who is living a contented life with his family (in sharp contrast to Don who has everything and yet nothing) and from Alexis Dziena whose Lolita is hilariously uninhibited and not at all concerned about it. The soothing jazz soundtrack by the Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke which Don listens to on the road, contributes to the light mood, offsetting the film's bleakest moments.

At the end, Don has come to understand that the past is irretrievable, the future uncertain and that one has to live life to the fullest in the present. He stands, as the final shot, a 360 degree pan, makes clear, literally and metaphorically at a crossroads, and it is a testament to the consistency and strength of Jim Jarmusch's delightful film, that it is left up to us to ponder which path Don will take.

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