Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, an ‘appealing’ and ‘perplexing’ journey of a lifelong womanizer
Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is small-scale and wry, a film whose deadpan, unostentatious manner can make it either appealing or perplexing, and sometimes both at the same time.
The central premise is patently provocative—Bill Murray plays an aging and somewhat forlorn “Don Juan,” a lifelong bachelor and womanizer named Don Johnston who sets out on a journey to visit the women from his past after an anonymous letter informs him that he has a son he’s never met. It’s a story that has several kinds of potential—comedy, suspense, a vestigial sort of romance—and Jarmusch lets it all unfold in ways that offer a variety of small surprises and payoffs, while also consistently deflecting conventional expectations with such material.
Part of it becomes a miniature road movie, with Murray/Don somewhat hesitantly journeying from one squeamish reunion to another, hoping to resolve the rumor of the unknown son and not really expecting to be greeted with open arms anywhere along the line. And the visits add episodes to the subdued picaresque adventure trickling out in the social landscape and stages of life in which he finds them.
And his finding them becomes a means by which he is found out, by us in the audience at least. This frayed-at-the-edges Don Juan is rather withdrawn, still stunned and depressed by the abrupt departure of his latest lady friend (Julie Delpy) at the start of the film. But the encounters with the women bring forth a series of puzzles, questions and partial insights bearing on Murray/Don—it’s characterization by triangulation—the woman is not what she once was (to him or to herself) but we get glimpses of who she was when she was with Don and that allows us to ponder a perhaps unfinished speculative portrait of this man’s own adamantly unfinished life.
The women make a variety of quirky impressions on the story and on us, and the combinations of those quirkinesses gives us a kind of implied composite portrait of the Don who was once something other than what we see now. Laura (Sharon Stone) is, for example, a party-hardy widow with an excessively nubile daughter (Alexis Dziena) who competes nakedly with her mother for Don’s attention.
Dora (Frances Conroy), an erstwhile hippie chick, is now an echt-bourgeois working in real estate and given to vaguely neurotic twitches and flutters. Carmen (Jessica Lange) is a wackily wary “animal communicator” whose days are organized in a rather possessive way by her young receptionist/aide (Chloë Sevigny). Penny (Tilda Swinton with big hair and a hangover frown), lives on a farm with some biker dudes and she gets unhappier by the minute when she sees Don on her doorstep.
All of the principal women are quite effective here, and Stone and Lange make especially sharp contributions to Jarmusch’s cinema of the absurd. Bill Murray is another matter—he has the almost impossible task of portraying Don as an emotional void who is nevertheless not entirely emptied out. Jarmusch and Murray make it into a nice little demo on the art of the expressive non-response.