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Broken Flowers

2006-03-30 13:26


By conventional standards Don Johnston (Bill Murray) seems to have few problems. Apart from a name uncomfortably close to the star of "Miami Vice", Don is independently wealthy, a perennial bachelor and in the prime of health. Despite middle age setting in, he continues to attract a string of beautiful girlfriends, and his garrulous Ethiopian neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright) is also his best friend. And yet Don seems utterly empty of all emotion. Then, on the day his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy) decides to leave him, he receives an anonymous letter telling him that he might be the father of a 19-year-old boy. He takes the letter to Winston, a passionate armchair detective, who convinces him to visit his former lovers and discover which of them wrote the letter. And so Don sets out on a personal odyssey into his past, visiting four very different women and searching, in vain, for meaning in each of his encounters.


Extraordinary. Profound. Moving. These are not words you would normally apply to a film in which, by the standards of most overstuffed commercial films, nothing much happens. There are no epic battle scenes, no tear jerking tragedies, no startling revelations of "the truth". Yet Broken Flowers cuts right to the bone, largely without you realising it at the time. For weeks afterwards you find yourself puzzling over scenes, replaying dialogue in your head. It's a sly and beautiful film that gets under your skin but refuses to explain how it does it.

A major source of the film's power is, perversely, its relentless passiveness. Writer director Jim Jarmusch never seeks to impose meaning on an individual scene or the movie as a whole. Ever the king of understatement, Jarmusch pitches each scene, each line of dialogue, each long silence in a way that forces the audience to engage with the film to ask themselves: "What is happening here? What is he feeling? What will happen next?" What might appear at first to be empty and meaningless is suddenly pregnant with possibility.

With no sparkly baubles or explosions to hold our attention Jarmusch's vision is largely at the mercy of his actors. Here, however, he has nothing to worry about. Bill Murray is on top form, matching and exceeding his performance in Sofia Coppola's excellent Lost in Translation. Jarmusch apparently wrote the part of Don specifically for Murray, and it certainly does seem to fit him like a glove. Few actors have the fine control over the subtleties of tone, expression and timing that are required for a role like this, whereas Murray makes it look effortless.

Murray is aided in no small measure by a superb supporting cast. Though their time on screen is extremely brief, each of Don's former girlfriends has a roundedness, a kind of three-dimensional believability that you'd struggle to find in the lead character of many romantic comedies. Jarmusch's writing and direction can claim some credit for this, but the bulk of it lies with Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.

Though he is something of a comic foil, Jeffrey Wright's character is in many ways the beating heart of the movie. Where Don's life is empty and aimless, Winston's is full of warmth, children, humour, love and - above all - possibility. Wright's job may appear to be easy but in reality it is as difficult as Murray's and he handles it with a sure-handed grace that you can't help but admire.

Despite the quality of the performances, the exquisitely crafted script and the beautiful minimalism of Frederick Elmes' cinematography, many people will still be deeply frustrated and annoyed by Broken Flowers. Without a traditional linear format and a tidy conclusion many will find the movie empty, boring and pointless. We have all become so accustomed to agenda, meaning and context that we forget that these things are only neat and easy in the artificial world of films.

This is Jarmusch's trick - the scalpel he uses to get under our skins. By denying us access to an easy, pre-packaged McMeaning (tm), he forces us to seek our own meaning. In our search we unlock a part of ourselves that is never accessed by the surface glitter and melodrama of most commercial films. We open the invisible world inside our heads - the part of ourselves we use to think about our own lives, our own problems. This is uncomfortable, to say the least, but it is also rewarding and rejuvenating.

Should you watch Broken Flowers? Not if you're in the mood for light entertainment, no. But if you're in the mood to think, or feel the need for a tonic to cut through all Hollywood's syrup then Broken Flowers is a great choice.

- Alistair Fairweather

Fans of Lost in Translation will enjoy director Jim Jarmusch's quirky tragi-comedy starring Bill Murray.

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