Saturday, September 24, 2005

Broken Flowers for Broken Relationships

Bill Murray's latest offering, Broken Flowers, which won highest honors at the Cannes Film Festival, is now circulating in the theaters in a limited release. Like his release from a couple of years back, 'Lost in Translation', this is a serious film, as Murray continues to demonstrate he can do drama as well as comedy. Also like that previous film, Murray plays a rather burned-out middle aged person who seems incapable of sustaining meaningful enduring relationships with women, despite or perhaps because of his considerable reputation as a lothario.

In Broken Flowers Murray plays Don Johnston, a deliberate punning on the former star of Miami Vice Don Johnson. The movie opens as well with Murray watching an old classic film about Don Juan, the man who lost his life because he had one lover too many. The theme that there is a cost to having a string of relationships with women none of which end in marriage is set from the beginning, and Murray plays out the script of being someone who has both been burned, and is now burned out In this film there are many curious connections meant to make us wonder whether there might be a larger design to life, but Johnston is clearly incapable of figuring out what it might be.

The movie begins with Murray receiving a letter on pink stationery with no return address and no signature announcing that twenty years previously he had fathered a child. Johnston doesn't really much react to this announcement nor is he really at all sure that it is true, but when he shows the letter to his neighbor Winston, Winston insists that he must list, and then track down his previous lovers and find out whether this claim is true. In fact Winston goes so far as to book Johnston on planes and gets him rental cars and maps. Winston, is much more curious to get to the bottom of the matter than Don Johnston is.

Johnston is reluctant but acquieses and we are off on mapquest to find out what the truth is about the progeny. Johnston even follows the script of what to do given him by Winston, as otherwise he would be clueless. He is to go to each one looking classy, bring them pink flowers and in an indirect manner look for clues to the truth as to which woman could have sent him the letter, and whether what the letter claims is true or not. The encounters with these women (four in number) range from the sublimated to the ridiculous, and we are left to piece things together for ourselves. None of the women say they have a son, but then Johnston mostly tries to ferret this information out indirectly rather than directly. The movie ends with Johnston back home but having an apparently 'chance' meeting with a young man--- who may or may not be his son.

It is hard to generate much sympathy for Murray's character as he seems more like "a patient etherized upon a table" to use a line from T.S.Eliot, than like a vibrant lover of life and women. But one thing that comes through loud and clear in the movie is that a string of short term sexual encounters does not an enduring relationship make. Instead of such encounters leading one to be more alive or lively or vibrant, they in fact have a deadening and cheapening effect.

Meaningless sex leads not to one becoming more capable of loving, but rather becoming incapable of love, commitment, or much of anything vital. The end result of playing this part this way is that Murray becomes the poster child for what is meant by dead pan acting. Though a few things surprise him and frighten him, and he is a little curious about whether he has a son or not, nothing really moves him or causes him to engage with life.

This movie is almost like something the old existentialists like Sartre would have created had they made movies. Life lacks meaning, therefore one seeks pleasure. One obtains pleasure, only to discover that it too can be without meaning, and does nothing to fill up the void in one's life, the great need for genuine and lasting love. Instead of seeking meaning and purpose elsewhere, one simply tries pleasure over and over again. But alas, the God-shaped vaccuum in a human life can only be filled by God, as another Frenchman, Pascal said.

This movie is not for everyone, but it does indeed expose a raw truth-- pleasure does not necessarily vivify a person. Indeed it may do the opposite, and is certainly no substitute for real love. And more to the point being a serial lover always has a cost. Broken relationships like broken flowers quickly die and look sad and pathetic in the process, leaving persons grasping at straws and wondering what might have been. Murray plays the part of the man with endless ennui to the hilt. It's not very exciting to watch, but it very effectively makes its point about life.
In an odd and indirect way, this movie is a powerful testimony that life without Christ can indeed be boring, bothersome, worrisome, troublesome and ultimately unfulfilling.

No comments: