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Issue Date:  August 26, 2005

Fragmentary lives

Bill Murray looks back on past lovers in 'Broken Flowers'; a Frenchman decides between music and crime in 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped'


Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger than Paradise”) won the Grand Prix this year at Cannes for Broken Flowers, but his film will probably not reach a mass audience because it restricts the comic range of Bill Murray as the character Don Johnston. It may be Mr. Murray’s richest performance yet, achieved by minimal but profound means. Dumped at the outset by his girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), he sits on a couch, half-watching television, offering no complaints, but his eyes give him away. Then he gets another shock, an anonymous pink letter saying he has a 19-year-old son who may now be looking for his father.

Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a friend who lives next door, turns out to be an amateur sleuth. He runs down the addresses of Don’s ex-lovers, provides maps with the best routes to their homes and tells his dazed friend to dress well and take pink flowers to each woman. Mr. Jarmusch doesn’t offer a sustained narrative but holds his movie together with images of an anxious Don in planes and cars, traveling from one woman to the next. He wants to give up on his quest but Winston urges him on by phone.

Successive episodes offer a quizzical, quiet but often hilarious look at contemporary America. In the first episode, Don finds Laura (Sharon Stone) unmarried and glad to see him but with hints of sadness in her life. Her adolescent daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), is more upsetting, acting out her name as a sexual tease. Don is glad to take off next morning to find Dora (Frances Conroy), an ex-hippie whose husband tells him she never wanted children. They live in a primly perfect home -- a model of those they sell -- where Dora serves a dinner of tofu and carrots that Don can hardly eat.

His next visit is to Carmen (Jessica Lange), who makes her living as an animal doctor able to communicate with her patients. Startled but curious, Don is firmly sent away by Carmen’s super-efficient assistant (Chloë Sevigny). His fourth stop is in a bleak rural area where two toughs are working in a barn. When he asks Penny (Tilda Swinton) if she has a son, she screams and the men beat Don up. Then, visiting the grave of an ex-lover who has died, he speaks tenderly and leaves his last flowers.

Back home, empty and disconnected, Don meets a young man who asks if he has any philosophic advice. Taken aback, he manages to say, “The past is done, the future’s not here and I can’t control it, so I guess it’s just this.” Wry and thoughtful, “Broken Flowers” has no “message,” but it helps us reflect on the randomness of things.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a film with an enigmatic title that will provoke post-movie discussion, is both an upsetting view of corrupt Parisian real estate operators and a testament to the healing powers of music. Directed by Jacques Audiard and based on James Toback’s 1978 film “Fingers,” it employs ugly images of violence to support a plot that emphasizes strained relations between fathers and sons. Its confusing opening scene has a man complaining angrily about his father and then recalling how he later cared for his father when he became ill. “Do you believe in God?” he finally asks Thomas (Romain Duris), who remains silent throughout. The scene previews the situation between Thomas and his own father.

Thomas works with a sinister group of people who drive defenseless immigrants out of rundown buildings by smashing windows, breaking down walls and releasing bags of rats. His own father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), a wreck of a man, is busy with shady real-estate deals, sometimes using Thomas as his “enforcer.” When the two meet in a cafe, Robert talks enthusiastically about his new girlfriend, whom he intends to marry. Thomas shows disgust and even insults the woman, but still conveys a hidden affection for his father.

Thomas’ mother, who is now dead, had been a concert pianist. After an encounter with her former agent brings an invitation for him to audition, his long-dormant but passionate interest in music reveals itself. Another chance meeting leads him to Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a Chinese piano teacher, and Thomas’ efforts to gain sufficient mastery to go through the audition becomes the driving force of the story. A lesson in calm, Miao-Lin tries to help Thomas let the music come from within, but his playing reveals continuing inner anger and desperation.

“The Beat That My Heart Skipped” has brilliant night scenes in dangerous Parisian neighborhoods and the music lessons have emotional power, but its plot has far too many twists and coincidences. Thomas seems deeply involved with the wife of his criminal collaborator; then she drops out of the film. The conclusion comes after a surprising time interval and combines Thomas avenging an attack against his father with a suggestion he has begun to find some of the calm Miao-Lin was trying to teach him to gain. Overall, this is a flawed but sophisticated French film that has considerable power.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 26, 2005

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