At the Present Moment
That’s why [Jim Jarmusch has] become such a force in international film—he explains America to aliens, while remaining an alien himself.
—Tilda Swinton, New York Times (31 August 2005)
A sort of minimalist male melodrama, Broken Flowers tracks a journey through regret and hope. This almost comes as a surprise, for at its start, the film doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere, in part because Bill Murray’s got the stuck on the sofa look down. As aging (and unfortunately named) lothario Don Johnston, he first appears before his television, his familiar face set in an impassive mask. Even as his about-to-be-ex-girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) is headed for the door, Don can’t even look way from the tv screen—he’s watching Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan—let alone rise from his seat. The point is unmissable: flowers wilt dryly in a vase near the tv, Sherry wears a pretty pink suit, and when he finally does approach her, he has no answer for Sherry’s plaint: “I just don’t think I want to be with an over-the-hill Don Juan anymore. It’s like I’m your mistress but you’re not even married.” And then she’s gone.
Don’s lifelong incapacity to commit is about to bite him big time. In the day’s post he finds a pink, typewritten letter, no return address or signature, announcing that he has a 19-year-old son who may or may not want to know him. While he’s getting used to this idea, he runs it past his best/only friend and next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), he of the house crowded with five children and a lovely wife who makes excellent Ethiopian coffee. A devotee of detective stories and the internet, Winston takes up Don’s case as one that needs to be solved. Though Don intimates that he’s acting out (as Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, or “that Dolemite guy”), Winston sees an opportunity for his friend to get hold of his loose-ended life.
Demanding that Don draw up a list of old girlfriends’ names and long-ago addresses, Winston hustles home with the info, by next morning ready with an itinerary: flights, motels, and rental cars. Over coffee, he hands Don the file and a cd he’s burned with work by Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke, and sends him forth to discover his past and his future. “You need to treat this as a sign,” urges Winston, “of the direction of your life at the present moment.”
The rest of Jim Jarmusch’s movie pursues that direction, mostly, as Don tracks down four erstwhile lovers to see if any is the mysterious pink letter writer (a fifth possibility turns out to be dead, and he spends a surprisingly mournful moment at her gravesite). Organized into vignettes that recall the evocative abstractish segments of Stranger Than Paradise, Broken Flowers considers disconnection as survival strategy. A technophobe millionaire owing to some vague computer business (which allows him to take off for days on end), Don is more a vacancy than an emotional center. It’s difficult to read his responses—he might be indifferent, pained, even remorseful about his serial abandonments—as the encounters overtly reveal less about his life changes than those experienced by each woman.
Like other Jarmusch movies, this one affects an ironic, not to say cynical, tone. As Don sits fixed to his sofa one evening before his departure, Winston comes to visit; while their deadpan conversation by cell phone during Winston’s entrance and exit is cute and funny, almost antic in its slow-moving lack of events. But it’s also arch, in a you-know-they-know-you-know sort of way. Framed by cinematographer Frederick Elmes in a series of self-conscious, observational compositions (almost like still photos), the scene develops character to a point (yes, again, they are clever and friendly with one another), but more specifically, it situates you: no matter the potential poignancy of Don’s attempt to look back on his middle-aged life, this moment establishes your safe, premeditated remove. You know and they know. It’s a late Bill Murray movie.
Once on his journey, Don only occasionally checks in with Winston, to complain that he’s driving compact rental cars instead of Porsches, or that he’s depressed by his lack of “progress.” As Don locates his former lady loves, each meeting is bracketed by a ritual-seeming bit of jet take-off and highway driving, his awkward efforts to ferret out who is the letter writer rendered in dryly comic terms. Winston advises him to bring flowers and look for hints of a preference for pink. “Bring me that typewriter,” he says, “And I can forensically match the type.” And so Don arrives at each door with pink roses in hand and not a whole lot to say.
No surprise, every woman shows pink inclinations: sexy and self-confident Laura (Sharon Stone), a professional closet organizer, lives with her aptly named daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena) in a home filled with memorabilia of her dead racecar driver husband, as well as pink accessories. (Lo drops her pink robe for Don’s benefit, then offers him a popsicle; Don has sex with Laura that night, as if seeking relief from her alarming child.)
Once a radiant flower child, Dora (Frances Conroy) now hands out pink business cards in the suburban real estate business she shares with her dull, creepily overbearing husband Ron (Christopher McDonald). Their exquisitely arranged, for-sale model home feels un-lived in; their straining for dinner table humor makes them seem too close their own surfaces, brittle. When Dora recalls that she first thought about “going into bottled water,” Ron supports her almost-decision, barking, “When you’re dying of thirst you can’t take a swig of oil or gold!”
In Don’s get-me-outta-here response (“Well, you’re certainly right about that”), Broken Flowers underscores the utter uncertainty betrayed by such assertions of certainty. They can agree, they can pretend mutual deference, and they can never know a thing about one another. Don’s next two stops further undermine the possibility for knowing. Carmen (Jessica Lange) is now a sincere animal commnunicator, her office located off in the woods, her sessions full of chirps and purrs. Her protective receptionist (Chloe Sevigny) ensures that Don’s time with the doctor is succinct and strange: as they sit in her office surrounded by dark wood and soothing décor, she recalls for Don her route to this place: when her dog—named Winston, a connection too weird to figure out—died suddenly, Carmen recalls, “My new ability was this gift… from him.”
Scooting from that visit to his last, with Penny (Tilda Swinton), a biker whose memories of Don are not sweet, Don looks almost unnerved. At Penny’s place he notes her bike has a pink gas tank and a typewriter tossed in the unmowed grass, but there’s no chance for him to ask any questions. She only treats him with a kind of horrified repulsion and leaves him to the mercy of a couple of tattooed mechanics, who slam him into unconsciousness and leave him in his rental car in a field.
These encounters and others don’t exactly lead Don to self-knowledge, so much as they lay out the vast and unknowable terrain that stretches before him. The excellent irony of this terrain, however, is that it appears in such tightly contained, perfectly composed images. This isn’t to say that Broken Flowers shows stillness, only that its frames allow or seem almost to imagine movement, beyond what’s precisely visible. At once relishing and challenging the familiar conditions of the road movie, it reveals contradictions in the genre: no matter where Don goes, he’s remains sofa-stuck, resilient, self-protective, in-turned. As much as this episodic tale reveals his history of loss and longing, Don’s self-understanding remains elusive. Gauged by the women he’s known, Don’s cipher and a convention, not nearly so mesmerizing as he imagines himself.