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No Limits

The exotic stylings of Jim Jarmusch’s latest film. A cultural primer.


From Stranger Than Paradise to Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch’s films are cultural scrapbooks, jam-packed with references to his favorite music, movies, writers, and artists. His latest, The Limits of Control, is set in Spain and stars Isaach De Bankolé as a hit man in calm, cool pursuit of a target—though Jarmusch says he’s “not as interested in the plot” as he is in the paintings that the killer admires in a museum, or the music on the soundtrack. The movie, which also stars Bill Murray, Gael García Bernal, and Tilda Swinton, was a collaboration between the cinematographer Chris Doyle (famous for his work with Wong Kar Wai) and production designer Eugenio Caballero (Academy Award winner for Pan’s Labyrinth). Caballero’s book of inspirations (click on the slideshow above to see pages with commentary from Jarmusch)—scraps of color, images, drawings, postcards—was the visual log the three repeatedly referred back to. Jarmusch talks about the process.

Let’s start at the beginning. The title, The Limits of Control, is taken from a William S. Burroughs essay.
It’s about language being used as a mechanism of control, but I like the double meaning. Does that mean the limits of our own self-control, or the limits to which people control us? Burroughs was always looking for coincidental connectedness. Our film is kinda built on that philosophy.

It’s also something of an ode to repetition and variation.
The idea of the variations was there from the beginning, because the guy is doing the same things over and over: going to the café, waiting, going to some safe house, waiting, going to the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid to see a single painting each time. It’s an action film without action, a suspense film without the drama of suspense.

The film starts with a quote from Rimbaud.
The poem, “The Drunken Boat,” is about the derangement of the senses. He’s starting a very strange adventure of his consciousness, and the film does that, too.

You were inspired by the movie Point Blank. Why?
I’m a huge fan of Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, and it’s one of John Boorman’s strongest films—a masterpiece, I think. It’s based on Donald Westlake’s book—he wrote a series under the name Richard Stark about a character named Parker. And Parker is a criminal who is very, very focused and cannot be distracted. He is samurai-like, in a way. Especially when I was younger, I devoured crime novels by Charles Willeford and James Cain.

The hit man wears some fabulous suits. Where did they come from?
I’ve been friends with Isaach De Bankolé since 1984. Once, about twelve years ago, he had on this iridescent fitted suit. I was like, “Damn …” He looked like some kind of gangster, in the best sense. I had that image in my head for years. I follow fashion design, and I liked Tom Ford’s fitted men’s-suit look, so I asked him to do it, but he was swamped. So we had a great costume designer who found an amazing tailor in Madrid—an old guy—and I’d go in there every few days, saying, “It’s a half an inch too short, the jacket.” Or, “No, I wanted the pockets Continental style.”

What references did you talk about with Caballero?
We talked endlessly about photographs, paintings, things we saw on the street, music and books and Neruda.

Why Neruda?
This film is about the trip. I’m more interested in the plate of pears on the table than the plot payoff. Neruda, he wrote all these odes to ordinary objects, like “Ode to an Artichoke.” And they are incredibly beautiful poems.

They’re very funny, as is this film.
One of my favorite quotes is Oscar Wilde saying, “Life is far too important to be taken seriously.” You gotta realize my poetry teachers were Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro, and the New York School is very close to my heart. Frank O’Hara was always putting funny things in the poems. Sometimes the poetry is in the silly thing, the funny thing, the offhand thing; it’s not always in the heavy thing. There’s an end of a Frank O’Hara poem that’s “My heart is in my pocket / It is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” He’s kind of a minor twentieth-century French poet, but O’Hara meant it. There’s something so exuberant to that. And there’s something in this film that celebrates the artifice of cinema too. It’s certainly not a neo-neorealism sort of film. Tilda Swinton’s character represents some kind of angel of the artifice of cinema for me.

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