Shades of Gris

In Jim Jarmusch's new film, four Spanish paintings play as much of a role as the actors do.

The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) in a scene shot near Madrid’s Torres Blancas.

The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) in a scene shot near Madrid’s Torres Blancas.


A solitary man in a slick suit enters the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofí­a in Madrid. He looks at the floor plan and purposefully seeks out his destination. He stands in front of Juan Gris’s El Violí­n (1916). Psychedelic tunes kick in and for a few minutes the man loses himself in the Cubist work, hypnotized, it seems, by the deep colors and the swirling, fractured composition. Then, just as intently, he leaves. He has an appointment to meet a man with a guitar.

El Violí­n is one of four distinctive Spanish paintings filmmaker Jim Jarmusch uses to shape the look and characters of his new movie, The Limits of Control, recently out from Focus Features. The film centers around a contract killer (Isaach De Bankolé), known only as the Lone Man, who travels to Spain on business. There, he meets with a stream of eccentric characters, each of whom leads him closer to his soon-to-be victim. But our enigmatic hero—a strong, silent type—also takes some time for himself. He practices tai chi every morning to harness his concentration. In the afternoons he goes to the Reina Sofí­a, visiting only one painting each time.

Jarmusch and his crew shot on location at the Reina Sofí­a for one day, where the writer-director picked the four paintings. Jarmusch also worked with cinematographer Christopher Doyle to incorporate the styles and colors of these paintings into the film.

Gris’s El Violí­n, for example, is reflected in tight, fractured shots of café tables, fruit, and espresso cups. After viewing the painting, the Lone Man meets up with a guitar-toting John Hurt and, later, a Mexican violin maker played by Gael Garcí­a Bernal. “The painting, of course, relates to the characters, but the curves and shapes of violins and guitars are echoed throughout the film,” Jarmusch says.

Next on the Lone Man’s list is Roberto Fernández Balbuena’s modernist nude Desnudo (1932). After looking at it, the Lone Man returns to his hotel room to find a femme-fatale-esque Paz de la Huerta sprawled naked on his bed. “That was a really beautiful connective thing,” Jarmusch says. “There’s something particularly Spanish about this painting as well—the languid sexuality, the cacti, the sense of light.”

Later in the film, the Lone Man scans the Madrid cityscape from the roof of the stunning Torres Blancas. The view turns into Antonio López Garcí­a’s realist cityscape Madrid Desde Capitán Haya (1987–94), which he visits at the museum later that day. “López Garcí­a made a painting from the roof of that very building,” Jarmusch says. “But the view had changed since he painted it—large neon signs, beer ads. I found another work painted from a different building that’s about the same height and paired it with a similar view from Torres Blancas.” Doyle and Jarmusch used the language of López Garcí­a’s urban vistas throughout, framing street scenes and landscapes as the artist himself might have painted them.

After finishing the hit job, the Lone Man visits Antoni Tàpies’s Gran Sábana (1968)—a sheet that is stretched and twisted into a rectangle on a white canvas. It takes us back to the dismal safe house where he stayed before and after making his hit, in which all of the furniture is covered with white sheets. When the Lone Man carefully lifted the sheet crumpled atop the bed, he found de la Huerta lying naked once again and fast asleep on his bed.

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