REWATCH: Broken Flowers

By Jessica Winter | April 7, 2009

Jessica Winter, who reconsiders Broken Flowers in the first of our Rewatch video essays, here offers a longer look at Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 movie.

Jessica Winter, who reconsiders Broken Flowers in the first of our Rewatch video essays, here offers a longer look at Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 movie.

Bill Murray

Bill Murray in Broken Flowers

When we first get a glimpse of Don Johnston, he’s sitting listlessly on his couch (a place where he evidently spends a lot of his time) watching an old movie on TV, The Private Life of Don Juan. We hear the famous womanizer, played by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., say, “I had no idea my own funeral could be so delightful!” In Broken Flowers, the Don Juan figure—or rather, the Don Johnston figure, played by Bill Murray—is not exactly a spectator at his own funeral, but there is something physically and spiritually moribund about him. He looks tired, beat down, past it. At the moment, he can’t even get all that riled up that his girlfriend, Sherry (played by the always ravishing Julie Delpy) is in the middle of leaving him, because she’s sick of being with, “an over-the-hill Don Juan.” This Don doesn’t seem to have the energy to brush his teeth before bed, much less to seduce an army of women, yet his philandering has left another of his relationships for dead. As it turns out, Don will spend the entire film sifting through dead relationships, prompted by an unsigned letter of unknown origin that claims that he has a nineteen-year-old son out there, somewhere, looking for his father.

Adding an element of a father-and-son quest to the nearly 500-year-old tale of Don Juan is an interesting twist: In the original, he kills the father of one of his conquests in a duel, but the dead man’s ghost returns in the form of a statue that pulls Don Juan down to hell. (George Bernard Shaw imagined “Don Juan in Hell” for the third act of Man and Superman.) Broken Flowers is not a vision of hell, but the road trip that Don takes in search of his son is structured as a kind of descent. The first encounter, with Sharon Stone’s Laura, the widow of a race-car driver, is weird but agreeable enough: Laura’s outrageously coquettish teenage daughter, Lolita, all but flings herself at Don, and Laura is happy to sleep with him. Not bad! His next pit stop, at the McMansion of Frances Conroy’s Dora, is more tense and bittersweet: Dora is welcoming (and so is her almost maniacally cheerful husband) but she seems stricken and fragile, almost afraid of this figure of her past returning to haunt her. At drop-in number three, Carmen, an “animal communicator” played by Jessica Lange, seems to regard Don with amused disdain, refuses his invitation to dinner (“I don’t eat”*), and is faithfully defended by her death-glaring receptionist-slash-lover, played by Chloe Sevigny with the aid of an extremely short skirt. Matters worsen at destination four, at the home of tough biker chick Penny—Tilda Swinton in a raven wig and an Extra Strength Death Glare—who sics her mulleted and dentally challenged homeboys on Don. He’s bruised and spent by the time he reaches the last woman on his list, or rather her grave—she is dead.

Murray with co-star Tilda Swinton in Broken Flowers

Murray with co-star Tilda Swinton in
Broken Flowers

Broken Flowers is somewhat faster-paced and more action-packed than some of Jarmusch’s earlier films, but all the components of his distinctive template are familiar: the recurrence of visual motifs (here it’s pink roses, or just the color pink) and songs (here by the great Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke), the fade-outs between vignettes, the dry sight gags. The filmmaker likes to send his characters on road trips, or trips in general, and the increasingly funereal tone of Don Johnston’s journey evokes Johnny Depp’s misadventures through the underworld in Dead Man. Often in a Jarmusch film there is a newcomer or a foreigner whose presence is a catalyst—Eva in Stranger Than Paradise, Roberto in Down by Law—and here that role is filled by Winston, an Ethiopian immigrant played by Jeffrey Wright, who coaxes Don onto the road and does all the investigative work of tracking down the women who might be the mother of his child. Broken Flowers is also evocative of Jarmusch’s previous work in that one can easily imagine Don as one of the disaffected and tragically hip slacker-types of his earlier films, but now his studied coolness has frozen into permanent, statue-like alienation. He is both the seducer and the ghostly father.

Being a Jarmusch movie, Broken Flowers is also very laconic, which is a reversal of expectations for what’s essentially a detective story (which typically relies at least somewhat on exposition) and also for a movie that largely consists of lovers reuniting after a space of some twenty years (so you’re expecting some reminiscing). But there’s vanishingly little exposition or reminiscing in Broken Flowers—its text is mostly subtext, and it’s left to the viewer to supply her own backstory and read between the lines. How did Don meet his lovers? What drew them together or broke them apart? Is Dora this tremulous around everyone, or just when Don is around? Why does Penny react so furiously when Don asks her if she has a son? (Does Don even know the answer to that question?) Appropriately enough for a story of a womanizer, watching Broken Flowers works the same cognitive muscles as flirtation—that is, we have to make inferences and educated guesses based on a person’s tone, expression, gestures, silences (especially silences). We have to measure how much sadness lies in Laura’s wistful, still-girlish sexiness; why Carmen’s suggestive body language contrasts so sharply with her dismissive verbal tone; whether Lolita’s cartoonish vamping is a true sexual overture, or if she’s just a teenager testing her limits. Most of all, we have to read into Bill Murray’s doughy, doleful face, which is so barely reactive that it becomes a projection screen.

Like many flirtations, Don’s journey creates desire but doesn’t necessarily quench it—we want to see and hear more, to know more, to reach a conclusion. Each encounter is somehow incomplete, unconsummated. That frustration is perhaps by design: The letter, as Winston points out, could have been a trick, an act of revenge. Maybe the letter was meant to place a hex on Don—maybe he’s forever cursed to see his son in every young man, and the ghosts of lovers past in every young woman. You might say Broken Flowers also encourages us to see things that aren’t there. At every turn, the movie asks the plaintive question, Are you the one?, but leaves it to the viewer to decide the answer.

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