Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Don Juan: East meets West

In Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a Don Juan by accident. In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a Don Juan by profession. Both, however, are not quite happy or comfortable in their roles and, in their own different ways, that's what these two movies are about.

For Chow, the ladies' man identity is never a good fit; he falls into this role as a defense mechanism in response to the heartbreak he suffers in In the Mood for Love. In that movie, we never see any physical intimacy between Chow and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), but the suggestion of attraction - prevalent in everything from the characters' body language to the cinematography to the cigarettes Chow chainsmokes - hangs heavy in the air and the emotional connection between them becomes palpably real. They never consummate their relationship - at least not in front of the camera - which makes their ultimate separation all the more heartbreaking.

As a result, the Chow of 2046 goes in the exact opposite direction; he eschews emotional intimacy by repeatedly pursuing meaningless physical relationships. He puts on the Don Juan façade - embodied physically by his slightly out of place mustache - and the film matches this personality shift, offering scenes of physical intimacy bathed in sexy hues of yellow and red. Beyond this screen of hedonism offered by both Chow's smarmy, mustachioed seductions and Wong's cinematography, sits a deep well of sadness. With every close-up of Tony Leung's face, we see a flicker of pain behind his ladies' man smile and Wong's shot compositions consistently cast Chow against a vast plane of negative space, illustrating a profound emotional emptiness that belies his flirtatious good humor. It is clear that, in spite of himself, Chow falls in love more than once over the course of the film, but in a feeble stab at self-defense he does his best to deny it.


Broken Flowers, on the other hand, depicts the story of not a sincere lover pretending to be a Don Juan, but something of the reverse order. Bill Murray's Don Johnston has been a promiscuous playboy all his life - when trying to determine which woman could have given birth to his son 19 years ago, he can only narrow it down to five possibilities - and the fatigue has finally caught up with him. The New Yorker's David Denby and numerous other critics (amateur and professional alike) have found a fairly obvious contradiction in the character of Don Johnston; he's supposed to be this great lover, but Bill Murray's deadpan performance makes him seem like he's more likely to attract flies and vultures than the opposite sex. These naysayers forget, however, that the film begins with his most recent lover - a very heavily made up Julie Delpy - leaving him. As a Don Juan, he has lost his touch and the question is whether it's due simply to his age or rather that it is caused by a more profound existential crisis. In other words, is the problem that he can no longer turn on the charm like he used to or can he just no longer bring himself to?

I would argue the latter. Everything from Murray's minimalist characterization to the drab palette Jarmusch employs in his shot composition creates an atmosphere of world-weariness, as if his lifestyle has sapped all the emotion from his face and all the color from his world. Only a man who feels he's already seen it all wouldn't even flinch upon meeting his former lover's daughter - unironically named Lolita - and having her immediately throw herself at him.

Because his backstory is only implied, one could very easily imagine that Murray's Don Johnston is merely an older, American version of Leung's Chow Mo-wan. At the time of 2046, Chow is relatively new to the playboy game and it still takes an effort for him to suppress his emotions. Johnston, however, has been at it for over twenty years and, apparently, has suppressed himself to the point of having almost no feelings whatsoever. Broken Flowers is, in effect, an account of Chow's future; Johnston's struggle is much the same as Chow's, only farther down the line. Both wrestle with their emotions and their fears, the only question - the question that Jarmusch seeks to answer - is who will win.

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