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Karlovy Vary: Third Report
Posted on Thursday July 9, 2009, 12:55 by Damon Wise

One of the reasons I came to Karlovy Vary was to see the latest film from Jim Jarmusch, The Limits Of Control, which was heavily tipped to appear in Cannes but never did. The word on it has been poisonous, most notably from Variety and the reviewer there really went to town on the film, to such an extent that it seemed as though Jarmusch had personally betrayed him. Well, the film really isn't that bad, but it does raise some interesting questions, most notably: where will this film end up, and how will it fare in the marketplace? Personally, I'm a bit torn. I think Jarmusch is a good filmmaker, and this film will appeal to his fans, but should it get a release simply to enable a small, hardcore audience to check the box and add it to their list? These are really, really dark times for independent movies, and though I fully support Jarmusch and his fierce independence, I'm really not sure this is the right time to be using mainstream money to make such an enigmatic film.

Isaach De Bankole (pictured) plays 'Lone Man', a hitman of some sort who is travelling through Spain on a quest we never really get to the bottom of. There are no real names, just mysterious figures who cross his path and give him matchboxes that contain slips of paper filled with a code that is never explained. Each 'guide' has a little moment with the Lone Man, notably Tilda Swinton, in a white cowboy suit and wig, who ruminates about old films and says how she likes it best in movies when people just sit there and don't talk. They then, inevitably, sit there and don't talk – and it's glib moments like these that presumably distressed the Variety reviewer. For me, the tipping point almost came when the Lone Man, following a sign that may or may not have meant something to him, goes into a flamenco bar and watches the dancers rehearsing. It didn't feel like a vignette, it felt like an age, and coming at the midpoint of a 116-minute movie, it made me fear for the rest.

As it was, that was about as bad as it got. The Limits Of Control is self-indulgent, yes, but it's not without a strange poetry. If you haven't seen a Jarmusch film before, you might even love it. But if you have, you've seen a lot of this before. The structure is very similar to Broken Flowers in its procession of guest stars; the existential blanks are highly reminiscent of Dead Man; and as for a quiet, tai chi-performing hitman... well, Ghost Dog, anybody? The thing that kind of kept me going was its vague resemblance to Point Blank, the film works best as the fever dream of a dying man. I'd be very keen to see Jarmusch promote and defend it, but, to be honest, I'm worried that this film may not even get a UK release. No disrespect to it, but these are very conservative times.

Another film that may or may not see UK screens is Samson And Delilah, a very good first feature from Australia about a deaf Aborigine boy and girl from his town. To be frank, it makes the shanty towns of Slumdog Millionaire look like a holiday camp; at least there's life there. In Samson's place, however, there's just the monotonous thump of his brother's reggae band, nothing in the fridge, and only an old wheelchair to play with. It starts grim and gets grimmer; Samson steals a car and takes Delilah to the city, where they take up residence under a bridge. Samson ditches his glue habit and starts huffing petrol, while an increasingly bedraggled Delilah tries to sell her paintings to horrified diners at an outdoor cafe. But through it all, there's an innocence that keeps the film flowing, and first-timer Warwick Thornton not only has a great eye, he has a great ear too, and the film's sound design is extraordinary (it's mostly dialogue-free). Like Ratcatcher, it's a thoughtful glimpse of a world without privilege, and though it ends in a minor key of hope, it's very sobering and achieves in less than two hours what Baz Luhrmann's Australia failed to do in three.

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