Broken Flowers (2005)

In my Silver City review, I mentioned my recent writing retreat, in which I went internet-free in a cabin for a week to get some fiction writing done, and the collection of “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years”-era DVDs that had been purchased during that organization’s decline and which found there way to the cabin. One of these films was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. I have a complete and utter Jarmusch blind spot, never having seen any of his films. In fact, I only know him from his appearance on Fishing with John for, as you well know by now dear reader, I am a weirdo. After the abysmal experience of watching In Secret and once again trying and failing to get through Titus, I really wanted to clear my Jessica Lange palate, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a serial womanizer, now retired after having done quite well in the field of “computers,” and living rather disaffectedly. When his latest ladyfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, citing that she feels like his mistress even though he isn’t married, he receives a second blow: an untraceable letter from a woman claiming that Don fathered a now nineteen-year-old son with her and she kept it from him. The letter’s author warns that the boy is now on a road trip, and she has her suspicions that he’s looking for his father, and doesn’t want Don to be taken completely unaware. At the urging of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don travels to see the five women who might have sent the letter.

First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), who married a now-dead stock car racer. Now a professional closet organizer, she does have a teenaged child—a daughter inexplicably named Lolita, who even more inexplicably expresses a sexual interest in 55-year-old Don. Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy), formerly a flower child but now leading a boring existence as the wife and business partner of real estate agent Ron (Christopher McDonald). Then it’s on to Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who Don remembers as being very passionate about becoming a lawyer, but who is now some kind of animal whisperer, and from there Don locates Penny (Tilda Swinton), living in a bleak, crumbling clapboard farmhouse somewhere that definitely has a meth problem. Finally, Don visits the grave of Michelle, the fifth and final potential author of the letter. Returning home, he notices a young man (Mark Webber) whom he seems to remember having run into before, and buys him a sandwich and a coffee. Assuming that the boy is the long-lost son whose arrival was foretold, Don starts talking about being the kid’s father, freaking him out and causing him to run off. Alone in the street, Don watches as a car drives by slowly as a teenaged boy (Homer Murray, Bill’s real life son) makes eye contact with Don from the passenger seat, and then is gone.

While definitely a product of a certain time and of a certain generation of masculinity, which detracted from the end product for me, this was a good watch overall. The idea of Don Johnston as a Don Juan-esque lothario is a bit of a stretch (no offense to Murray, but let’s get real) and the fact that the film hinges on not just his one-time sexual voracity in his peak, but also his virility and that he’s never changed his behavior, is the weakest element. Murray’s also doing none of the heavy lifting here, as the editing is doing nearly all of the work while Murray sits back and lets his motionless silence be captured by Jarmusch’s directorial eye. There’s a great performance in here from the male lead, but it’s all in the Kuleshov of it all, while Murray does that thing that he always does (hey—if it’s not broke).

Looking at Jarmusch’s larger filmography, it seems his earlier films that predate Broken Flowers were largely anthological works, while his more recent ones seem to be more standard in their narrative structure, and this film is a kind of bridge between those two forms, conceptually, as it follows Don through a series of vignettes that consist of reunions with the women he once loved, each one shorter than the last, beginning with an overnight with Laura, a dinner with Dora and her husband, a constantly-interrupted period between appointments with Carmen, a four or five sentence exchange with Penny, and finally no time at all with Michelle. This adherence to structure is something that I love in any work of art; I think that the attention to detail is something that soothes my hyperactive brain. There’s also a lot of fun with the minor details of each interaction: Laura’s daughter’s detachment from the death of her father (“It was on the TV”), the utter sterility and banality of Dora’s bland dinner (a big slab of meat, unseasoned white rice, and crinkle cut carrots, possibly boiled), and the dilapidation of Penny’s home. There’s also something fascinating about the high number of basketball hoops everywhere he goes, which Don always instantly assumes means that there’s a teenage boy about and that he’s come to the right place, and yet their omnipresence renders them completely irrelevant as a clue.

Before Don goes on his adventure, Winston primes him to be on the lookout for pink items and objects to match the pink paper on which the letter was typed, and to try and obtain writing samples to compare to the written address on the envelope, which is the only handwriting on the letter. Although he isn’t successful in the latter endeavor, he (and by extension the viewer) is drawn to pink items everywhere in his adventure: Penny’s boots and motorcycle, Dora’s business card (to match her husband’s blue one), Carmen’s pants, etc. It’s a nice touch that, like the basketball hoops that appear so frequently, all of these clues are meaningless as well. The film sets itself up as a mystery: who sent the letter? And in the end, that mystery isn’t important, and remains unsolved. Each woman with whom he reunites is utterly noncommittal in their responses to Don’s roundabout questions, and in the end, it’s not as if he could have expected something different: if any one of them had taken the time to send Don a letter without divulging their identity, then they wouldn’t really allow themselves to be taken by surprise as he intends and suddenly confess when confronted in person. The possibility is even floated that Sherry wrote the letter as an attempt to shake Don out of his comfort zone, and that’s a possibility, but that resolution doesn’t really matter in the end.

As a showcase for the women who round out this cast, including Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant and Pell James as Sun Green, a compassionate florist who tends to the wounds that Don received from Penny’s friends, this is a pretty nice vehicle. It’s a film with a lot of breathing room but no real fat to be trimmed, playing out in shots that are long enough to convey meaning and last not one moment more. The blipvert/fever dreams that Don has in his quiet moments were initially distracting, especially as they simply once more reminded viewers that Don is still a perfectly virile man capable of sexual thought, which errs a little too close to the “New Yorker story in which an aging professional lusts after his student/protege” genre for my personal tastes, but not enough to derail the whole shebang.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

In Secret (2013)

I wrote before about the recent shuttering of both Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, and how neither one managed to survive the consequences of prolonged COVID-related shutdowns. In truth, both have been struggling for a while. When I was still living in Louisiana and only visiting Austin, there was a Vulcan Video location in North Austin near UT’s campus, complete with a giant mural of Spock, one block south from the apartment building where I would ultimately get my first place in Austin. One block west was the second location for I Luv Video on Guadalupe. By the end of my first year of residence, Vulcan had relocated their North location by about 25 blocks, and the I Luv Video on Guad posted a bunch of their DVDs and memorabilia for sale and consolidated with the main location on Airport Boulevard. It was at this sale that I found the Mrs. Winterbourne press packet that I wrote about when that was our Movie of the Month, lo these many years ago now. Most of the good horror had already been picked over, and what remained was risky. Jessica Lange had just left American Horror Story and I was hankering for some of that good Lange content when I stumbled across the DVD for In Secret, which featured her prominently on the cover. It was a fairly recent release (2013), too, and I figured I could risk the $4 and see if it would soothe my jonesing. But then, as these things often happen, I had to move and the DVD got stuffed into a box, and then put on a shelf for three years where it was occasionally discussed and then rejected as I could never quite sell my roommate on it. And then it went into another box, and then onto another shelf in another new place, where it’s sat for another year, until it took a trip with me to a cottage in the Texas Hill Country as part of my “emergency media” stash for my wi-fi free solo writing retreat (it’s going great, by the way). I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t live up to the hype. Spoiler alert for an Emile Zola novel that’s older than harnessed electricity.

In Secret is the very rote 19th century story of Thérèse, a young girl whose mother dies and leaves her in the care of her indigent explorer father, who immediately deposits the child with his own sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her chronically ill, possibly hypochondriac son Camille. Raquin is no wicked aunt/stepmother, but while she lacks ill intentions, she has an abundance of ideas of propriety and the natural progress of a life that are rigid in both structure and enforcement. In time, Thérèse grows up to be Elizabeth Olsen, and Camille grows up to be Tom Felton, and all the while the two are still forced to sleep in the same bed. When word arrives that Thérèse’s father, who has been gone for what must be at least eight years but feels like more, has died, Madame Raquin wastes no time in marrying the cousins to each other, which was the style at the time. She secures a job for Camille in Paris doing some kind of office work, and she opens a dress shop in a dingy alley with Thérèse as her assistant. Camille is soon reunited with Laurent (Oscar Isaacs), a childhood friend whose family relocated before Thérèse came to live with the Raquins, and his vivaciousness and bohemian nature capture Thérèse’s fancy, as her life is otherwise completely passionless and dictated by her aunt/mother-in-law.

The two soon begin a sordid, torrid affair, but when Camille decides to move the family back to their country home, their desperation to stay together pushes Thérèse and Laurent to kill Camille so that they can stay together in the city. While on a day trip in the park that culminates in renting a boat, they push him overboard before sinking the boat and framing the whole thing as an accident. While waiting what seems an appropriate amount of time before marrying one another, Laurent and Thérèse grow bitter and resentful of one another, and even after they have married, this hatred for one another continues to grow, especially once Madame Raquin suffers a stroke that leaves her largely paralyzed and requiring constant care, until they both seek desperate measures to extricate themselves from the circumstances.

This movie is … not very good. You know how, sometimes, you see that a movie was filmed in Serbia, and you’re like, “Oh, this movie was made specifically so that they would have something to show on buses for people traveling across Eastern Europe”? This is one of those films. This is, to date, the only feature helmed by director Charlie Stratton, who looks to have come up through the Hollywood ranks as an actor first, with sporadic one-off roles in TV series like L.A. Law, Thirtysomething, Dallas, and Matlock, with a major role on the Dirty Dancing television show, which apparently existed. From there, he’s mostly directed for television sporadically (Revenge, The Fosters, Chasing Life, Everwood), but the problem here isn’t one of direction (it’s competent), it’s one of story. This is a very 19th Century story, and it feels like it.

Certain narratives of that age can be endlessly reinvented or reinterpreted (say Bronte, Austen, Alcott), and this is a story penned by Émile Zola, who was nominated for both the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote it with the intent of examining the relationships between the four temperaments, with each of the characters representing one of them, and as such considered the narrative itself to be a foregone conclusion, as this was the only way the four archetypes could interact, and the tragic ending was a foregone conclusion. That’s fine for the era in which it was written and is even fine if one were to engage with that worldview/mindset and re-examine and reinvent the narrative. There’s nothing inventive or novel about this extremely faithful approach, and as such, it feels more like an outdated morality play than anything else. One may as well make a completely straightforward adaptation of Pamela if one isn’t going to engage with the text in a meaningful, transformative, inspective way.

Most contemporary criticism revolved around Lange’s performance, and she delivers a great one, as usual, as she wrings great drama out of the scenes in which she is trapped in her body and attempting to communicate to others that all is not as it seems. Felton is serviceable, and Olsen and Issacs deliver characteristically invested performances as well, but there’s only so much overwrought peak-Romanticism era histrionics that one can stand. The film’s more somber moments are undercut by an air of (one hopes) unintentional comedy, delivered mostly by the presence and performances of Matt Lucas, then best known for Little Britain, and Shirley Henderson as, respectively, Olivier and his wife Suzanne. Above and beyond the fact that no one, from Lange down, even attempted to portray a hint of Franconess in this very French story, these two Brits seem to be playing every scene in which they appear for humor, and although it’s tonally jarring, these few morsels manage to be the only moments of real entertainment that the film has. The scene in which Lange’s Raquin painfully attempts to tell her assembled friends that Laurent and Thérèse killed Camille by painstakingly drawing individual letters with her enfeebled hand, only to get out “Thérèse and Laurent” before exhausting herself, only for Olivier to declare that she must have been writing “Thérèse and Laurent are taking great care of me,” is camp of the highest order, and completely out of place in what is otherwise a dour and dreary film.

Matt Lucas should never be the saving grace of anything.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond