Skip to content

Coffee and Cigarettes: some thoughts on Jim Jarmusch’s film

Anna and Kati managed to persuade me to the cinema for the first time in a long time tonight. While editing lapinthrope I tried to keep myself as far from other people’s cinema as I could but the edit is done and it is time to look at the world from others’ perspective.

Normally I am boycotting American cinema as a whole both for aesthetic (damn are Hollywood films boring and risible for the most part) and political (bombing civilian cities in peacetime, supporting the prison camps of Gaza and the West Bank) but Jim Jarmusch is about as alternative as it goes. Moreover, for these young ladies Coffee and Cigarettes is definitely a step in the right direction. And both of them are charming, funny and pretty. So a definite exception to the rule.

When I headed out for the eight o’clock screening at the Stadtkino at Schwarzenbergplatz I wasn’t expecting much. Just another empty rundown cinema for an alternative film.

To my astonishment above the cinema there was a huge wooden plaque advertising Coffee and Cigarettes. And an enormous queue of people to see the film. An alternative film sell out, outside of Sundance. What a pleasant surprise!

Perhaps it is the theme. Coffee and cigarettes are very dear to the Viennese. They prefer café conversation to any other activity apart from sex. No greater city on earth for pointless chatter about the vagaries of one’s soul and the tremors of one’s internal life. One enormous therapist’s couch.

While the screen at Stadtkino is small, the seating (corduroy covered captain’s chairs) is the most comfortable I have ever enjoyed. The sound system is also quite good. Definitely an experience to repeat.

So Coffee and Cigarettes?

Apparently there are eleven vignettes which make up the film. All of the vignettes are set around a coffee table. Which makes for nice continuity.

Sadly, only three of the vignettes are memorable. Two for their brilliance. One for it’s incompetence.

Both of the brilliant ones are called Cousins. In Cousins 1, Cate Blanchett plays a rather prim version of herself on a publicity trip for a new film. In the café of a famous hotel, she is waiting for her wild cousin to show up for a quick coffee between interviews.

The bohemian Shelly turns up late – one already suspects to thumb her nose at her cousin. It is apparent that the two women were close once, perhaps as girls. When life took them apart, Cate’s life divorced her from Shelly’s reality. Shelly both despises and envies Cate’s life. The dialogue between the two women is razor sharp, each nuance laden with emotional meaning. The two talk over one another, interrupt one another’s sentences and stare each other down.

Particularly amazing is that Cate Blanchett actually plays both roles. And is totally convincing in both. At no point do you feel that you are watching anything other than a genuine dialogue between two separate characters. Jarmusch’s editing and shooting plan are exquisite, pulling the best from the masterful performances and making the scene play as if organically shot with two actresses. A master turn.

Eventually the divide between the two women becomes insurmountable. We regret both of their positions and are powerfully reminded of the pain of past closeness and present divide. All they are able to truly share is a cigarette.

In a beautifully delivered punchline worthy of a Maupassant or Fitzgerald story, when Shelly is left on her own and Cate ascends to her interviews, the waiter swoops in on Shelly as she is about to light another cigarette. “I’m sorry,” he says, “smoking is not permitted in the lounge.” Shelly scowls blackly.

This vignette is almost worth the price of admission and the time lost on the movie as a whole.

Cousins 2 between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan riffs on the same showbiz theme. Molina plays himself. In LA, he has arranged for a coffee with out-of-towner Coogan who is just coming off promoting a hit cult film 24 Hour Party People. Coogan’s assistant booked the meeting reluctantly and Coogan shows up reluctantly. Molina has many kind things to say about Coogan’s work. Coogan tries in a British way to hide his contempt for the little of Molina’s work that he has scene. Coogan becomes more condescending with the passing of time and finally demands what it is Molina wants from him.

Molina explains that he has done some geneological research and that via a great-great grandparent the two are cousins. Coogan is discomfitted by the news, makes to leave, refuses outright to give Molina any of his private numbers. Molina’s cell rings. It’s Spike Jonze the director. Apparently he and Molina are close friends. Coogan has been dying to hook up with Jonze but has not been able to do so.

“Would it be shabby of me to give you my number now?” Coogan asks Molina at the end of the piece.

“Yes,” Molina says and exits the frame, leaving Coogan on his own.

The scene is perfectly pitched. The entertainment business sparring for rank and seeking of personal advantage in every acquaintance is spot-on. One sees oneself and one sees others in both of these roles. At some point all of us act with vanity and self-importance to others out of turn and suffer for the hubris. At some point, we are treated cavalierly by those we would help. The piece skewers LA and the entertainment business, but tells a fundamental human truth.

The worst of the rest is a piece with two rappers and Bill Murray. For some reason Bill Murray is working as a short-order cook who drinks coffee straight from the pot he is carrying around to offer guests. I’m Bill Murray he acknowledges without blinking an eye. The explanation for his current role is never given. Hiding out is what the rappers suppose. The record is never set straight. Everyone leaves the scene finally and it comes to a merciful end.


I would recommend getting ahold of Coffee and Cigarettes on DVD and watching the two Cousins pieces a couple of times each with a quick glance at whichever celebrities particularly interest you (Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Roberto Benigni).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *