The Past Haunts the Present

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Review of 'Broken Flowers', director Jim Jarmusch

This is Bill Murray being Bill Murray in a film by Jim Jarmusch. In fact, it is a film written by Jarmusch specifically for Murray, 'to explore Murray's melancholic side' - a side that many will feel was already well explored in Lost in Translation. It is difficult not to make comparisons between the two films, and unfortunately Broken Flowers isn't in quite the same league.

The story begins with Murray's character, Don Johnston, being left by his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) who declares she feels like a mistress despite the fact that he isn't married. This is not because of his preoccupation with other interests - his life seems remarkably empty - but rather because he seems to have made no concession in his lifestyle to her or anyone else. His house is immaculate, austere, dreary, and masculine in its decor, and he seems to do little more than sit alone on the sofa in the dark watching television. We learn that he made his money in computers and no longer needs to work.

Johnston's barren life is contrasted with that of his Ethiopian neighbour, Winston, played by Jeffrey Wright, whose house is overflowing with children, toys, mess and an indulgent wife. With greater curiosity and zest for life, he is the instigator of Johnston's journey - a road trip to solve a mystery.

As his girlfriend is walking out the door, Johnston receives a letter from one of his past lovers informing him that he has a 19 year old son, who may be in search of him. The letter is unsigned. Winston persuades him to visit each of his lovers from 20 years ago in order to establish who it might be. We then see Johnston visit four women with starkly different lives, played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton. The scenes with each are well-crafted and entertaining, particularly that between Murray, Stone, and Alexis Dziena, who plays Stone's daughter, Lolita. There is a gentleness and warmth to the interaction which is missing from the other encounters.

Perhaps most frustrating is that in all these scenes there is very little depth. We have quiet observation of paths not taken in a rather unfulfilled life. But we have no sense of what kind of relationship Johnston had with these women and what led to their endings. We simply have more or less awkward interactions between Johnston and some aspects of his past.

One of the best features of this film is the soundtrack to the roadtrip, provided by Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke.

Broken Flowers isn't funny enough to be easily categorised as comedy, nor is it weighty enough to be considered good drama. It falls somewhere between the two. But then you could say the same about Lost in Translation. The difference is that the latter was beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, with an original juxtaposition of characters, and a storyline of increasing emotional depth.

The underlying philosophy of the film, or at least the main character, is that we have no control over the past or future, and can only live in the present. This is the wisdom Johnston imparts at the end of the film to a young man who may be his son. This isn't very original or profound, but then neither is the film. Sadly, you suspect it would like to be.