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Stranger than Paradise
Directed + written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson, Cecillia Stark

Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: drama

Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: artsy-fartsy
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: ½/5

Plot synopsis Willie lives alone in a dingy, dirty, closet-sized studio apartment in New York City. So when he agrees to put up his Hungarian cousin Eva for a night, as she makes a brief stopover en route to her final destination of Cleveland, he’s already thinking it’s a bit of a hassle for him to make room for this relative he doesn’t even know. Not that he’s particularly close to any one in his family, as Willie has pretty much turned his back on his Hungarian roots in his whole-hearted embrace of American culture – TV dinners, football and all. But when it turns out that Eva has to stay with him for ten days instead of a single night – her Aunt Lotte, with whom she’ll be staying in Cleveland, is sick in the hospital – Willie’s really ticked that her presence is throwing a loop into his usual routine of sitting around his apartment watching TV all by his lonesome, and heading out to the racetracks with his buddy Eddie (who actually rather likes Eva from the start).  Willie soon comes to admire Eva – particularly when she returns to the apartment one day with a her baggy overcoat stuffed full of stolen groceries and a carton of cigarettes – and by the time the ten days have passed, finds he’s sad to see her go. Fast forward to a year later. Willie and Eddie have just won a heap of cash by cheating at a game of cards, and decide to drive out to Cleveand to see how Eva’s doing. They find her bored out of her skull in the dreary, snowy city, working at a hot dog place and getting nagged to death by Aunt Lotte. Which is how Willie, Eddie and Eva come to find themselves on a spontaneous road trip to Florida, envisioning an escape to a land of eternal sunshine and infinite stretches of sandy beach: paradise.

Review Not a whole lot really happens in Stranger than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch’s first film. Action-packed with excitement, it certainly isn’t, nor is it the sort of talky flick where we learn about the characters through what they say, not so much what they do. What it is instead is a strange, elegantly stilted narrative in which the story, in so much as there is one, is generally shaped and defined not by what we see happening on screen, but by what isn’t happening, or what we imagine to be happening in between the scenes. The fabulously spunky Aunt Lotte speaks in un-subtitled Hungarian 99% of the time, which means that we can only make out what she’s saying based on her expression, and the rare but revealing bursts of broken English that manage to come through. And when Eva has an argument with Aunt Lotte about going on a date while Willie and Eddie are visiting, we see Willie and Eddie following Eva out to the car, and then a cut to the next scene where Eva’s sitting in the darkened movie theatre in between Eddie and Willie, with Eva’s disgruntled date pushed off to the edge of the row, on the other side of Eddie. We don’t get to see how it happens that Eva’s date comes to find himself separated from Eva, but we do get to dwell on the expression on his face as he stares mopily at the screen, sneaking sidelong glances in annoyance at an oblivious and beaming Eddie, trying to catch Eva’s eye without success. It’s a peculiar and surprisingly effective way to show what’s happened without really showing what’s happened, skipping the obvious joke of watching the poor date suckered into this unexpected and unwanted group excursion, opting for the subtle chuckle instead when the viewers are allowed to process what’s happened. It’s the perfect way to tell a story about what it means to be a stranger in a foreign land – catching only bits and pieces of conversations, understanding jokes long after they’ve been told, having to infer what’s going on based on the little that you’re able to comprehend. Stranger than Paradise probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for those with enough patience to enjoy the stillness and the quiet – to read between the lines a little – it’s an odd, beautiful little movie that just may change the way you think stories have to be told. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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