Jim Jarmusch’s zen cool has rarely been deployed as effortlessly, or as confidently, as it is in Paterson. Set in the titular New Jersey town, and developing into a kind of city symphony for the modest locale, the film is almost devoid of conflict. A part-time poet and full-time bus driver (Adam Driver) wakes up every morning next to his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). He goes to work, he comes home for dinner, and he usually goes out for a beer at his favorite bar. This is the quotidian as contented domesticity: Driver’s character, who’s also called Paterson, likes his job, loves Laura (as well as her scoundrel of a pet pug), and values what time he can find to pen poetry in a little pocket-sized pad he calls his “Secret Book.”
Paterson wants for nothing, but his isn’t a utopian existence: his bus breaks down; an insecure guy at a local bar gets everyone excited by threatening suicide with a fake gun; and Laura makes him a brussels sprouts and cheddar cheese pie that he eats with visible discomfort. But the man is genuinely happy, and there’s a quietly revelatory virtue to Paterson in its resistance to disturb its subject’s life, to adhere to any typical conventions of film drama. The individualism of that decision is also a function of the film’s preoccupation with the nature of poetry.
In one scene, a preteen girl who also identifies as a poet voices a concern: “I have a poem, but it doesn’t rhyme.” Paterson thinks for a beat, and then encouragingly responds, “I kinda like them better when they don’t rhyme.” The film’s thin premise is fleshed out with such scenes, most just as charming as those between Paterson and Laura. There’s a brief cameo from Method Man, workshopping a rap at his laundromat. There’s a bartender who has plenty of stories about Lou Costello and other famous figures who came from Paterson. There are even several scenes of young people talking on Paterson’s bus that recall the graceful, scripted, but natural interactions in Jafar Panhi’s Taxi.
All these experiences figure into Paterson’s modest but lovely poems, which have titles such as “Another One” and “That Line.” The film so perfectly maintains the serenity of these scenes that one brief, serious-seeming disruption of the surface calm at first feels like a misstep, at least until Jarmusch uses the incident as a means to reaffirm and bring recognition of what Paterson’s life has given him, and by extension, to offer a quietly profound statement on the virtue of any given life.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.