Maybe it's the perfect films that are hardest to review.
I'd looked forward to Paterson since realising Adam Driver is a radiant screen presence, that Cannes had raved about it and that Jim Jarmusch had a richly varied back catalogue worthy of completist fervour (from acid western Dead Man to the vampiric glory of Only Lovers Left Alive). Yet his lower-key work has a particular flavour of humanity it – not humanity conjured to ground a plot, or humanity at a peak of its experience, but one gathered around sacraments like smoking, or here, moving through the liturgical day-by-day route to work and back. I find such films make me look at my own reality differently – please see this one, and be pulled in.
Bus driver Paterson lives in Paterson New Jersey, and writes a lot of poetry in his spare time. He and his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farsahani, bringing casual magic) have creativity seeping out of them, but it's kept under wraps – he won't publish or copy his work, she flits from painting to baking to singing at such a pace that we wonder if she'll finish anything. Paterson goes to work, writes before his shift, comes home to walk Laura's jealous dog, and has one beer at his local. And that's about it. There's narrative progress over the course of the week which we observe, but plot isn't the driving force (sorry): I had a couple of heart-racing moments, only because I've recently seen lesser movies take their heroes down a peg or two to build a more vertiginous arc, and cared enough about the residents of this story that I didn't want such forced fates to befall them.
Paterson's process of creativity feels true. It is soundtracked by Sqürl, the rock post-rock project of which Jarmusch is a member, in an almost industrial soundscape that evokes digging the depths of reality, rather than invoking the twinkly magic of genius (The Theory of Everything. Sorry). Each poem is usually read twice (internal monologue plus real-time appearance of on-screen text, in a font approximating his handwriting), this process akin to the development-through-repetition of a real artist. His day-job as a bus-driver also plays its part in this, being less a necessary evil than a repetitive habit during which Paterson's thoughts can brew. Driver took a bus-driving course to make it look like second nature – and indeed, the idea of a second nature, or second self, is all through the film.
Paterson and Laura's partnership is our relational mise-en-scène, and each day in the week begins with the pair sharing space in bed like a bleary Gemini. The 'twin' motif is explicit, originating in a dream from which we see Laura wake, and iterated in pairs of identical passengers on or outside the bus, the chess game in which Doc the barman opposes himself, and the black-and-white of Laura's strong visual style that governs all her many creative expressions. It also probably affects how we look at our titular character's job and his passion – of two selves not in direct opposition but in partnership.
Such motif-making is nicely done, with some playful touches. But it is absorbed in the rich, unhurried beautifully observed whole. All the regular characters inspire affection, from the over-earnest doomed lover at Doc's bar to Paterson's unceasingly complaining colleague (who still made me laugh out loud after I'd left the cinema). Even the passengers on whom we eavesdrop bring undercover winsomeness, so there's no darker persona featured than Marvin the bulldog (who posthumously took the Palme Dog award at Cannes for a villainous turn, but is still rather cute). In presenting a portrait of Paterson the town as well as of the man, Jarmusch gets to show the cultural heritage and diversity of the place: in its past are poets William Carlos Williams and Ginsberg, half of comedy duo Abbott and Costello, and the soul musicians immortalised in press cuttings on the barroom wall; in its present are wannabe gangstas, sweet anarchist students and a low-key cameo (no spoilers. Sorry) itself worthy of a dissertation.But we wouldn't have this Paterson without Driver – the camera is on his unmistakeable face almost constantly – and he is phlegmatic and likeable. As with the bus-driving course, I suspect it's fastidious preparation that allows his character-realisation to appear effortless. A slightly more lugubrious weight creeps into Paterson's later poems, but he doesn't approach his life with resignation, instead appreciating it for what it is. And what a lot there is to appreciate – Jarmusch populates it with allusions, Reginald Perrin-esque monotony, quiet epiphanies. There are perhaps more ambitious works in the director's oeuvre, and there may even have been closer-to-perfect films released this year. But my judgement is clouded because I love it – I'd like to climb into the film, where poetry gets born in dull urban spaces, where Laura radically redesigns the curtains daily, and Doc's jukebox is loaded and ready to go.