Written and Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I just feel like all the sand is at the bottom of the hour glass or something."
After years of overexposure, vampires are done. You know it, I know it, and, most importantly Jim Jarmusch knows it. Perhaps this is why he doesn’t actively seek to reinvent bloodsuckers, but rather has them lounging about, soaking in the ennui of immortality in Only Lovers Left Alive, a distinctly Jarmuschian take on the undead-as-tortured-souls motif. It’s a well-worn trope at this point, but Jarmusch comes at it from an interesting perspective: it mostly sucks to be a centuries-old vampire because you’ve seen it all, and you’re pretty sure it’s been all downhill for the past few decades. This is the vampire as hipster, a conceit that isn’t nearly as insufferable as that sounds because Jarmusch finds genuine Romance in their seen-it-all existence; you’re somehow left with the profound realization that life can feel fleeting and valuable, even for immortals.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) looks and sounds as if he leapt off the page of an Anne Rice novel: a shaggy, melancholic shut-in doubling as an enigmatic rock star, he spends his days in an analog fortress, surrounded by cables and vinyl, recording experimental noise-rock albums. Half a world away, his lover, Eve (Tilda Swinton), lives in Tangiers, where she pals around with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and procures the purest, finest blood on Earth. The two lovers frequently communicate (via Eve’s Apple iPhone, naturally), but Adam’s gloomy demeanor prompts Eve to hop on a plane to America, thus allowing the pair to reunite.
From there, an already tranquil film becomes an even more relaxed, patented Jarmusch hangout movie, with Adam and Eve sifting through memories and the ashes of culture while cruising the ruins of crumbling Detroit. The lovers’ bond would likely delight John Donne in its metaphysical sublimity; despite their (apparently lengthy) separation, the two bomb about town as if they’d spent the last thousand years in each other’s company. Watching the two wistfully enjoy their reunion is a remarkably human delight, and Jarmusch clearly reveres Adam and Eve, particularly their lust for life. Vampires are often associated with sexual bloodlust, but Adam and Eve thirst for the pleasures of life itself: good music, good books, good company.
The latter is especially hard to come by for Adam, who limits his human interactions to cursory visits with an eccentric doctor (an awesomely oddball Jeffrey Wright) and Ian (Anton Yelchin), a sort of modern-day Renfield type caught in the hypnotic gaze of Adam’s fame. The awe-struck kid brings guitars and other bizarre asked-for items, like a wooden bullet that Adam sees as a possible permanent cure for his melancholia. It’s almost amusing how ruthlessly cliché Adam is, but Hiddleston defies and sidesteps the usual forlorn, despairing vampire routine with a wry, knowing turn that’s just north of Lestat in its detached coolness. Hiddleston shakes off his youthful, almost petulant persona and inhabits an old soul with ease—there’s a lived-in weariness to Adam that’s palpable and humanizing.
His counterpart is positively luminous by comparison. Swinton is magnificently (and perhaps inherently) weird but earthy as Eve, a vampire whose years feel more like trophies rather than a burden. Whereas Adam consistently broods over what’s been lost to mankind’s stranglehold on the world (he refers to them as zombies), Eve is more intent on embracing and devouring life. The two are truly the halves of one soul, complete only in each other and their idyllic hangout only interrupted by the film’s lone major plot development: the arrival of Eve’s firebrand sister (Mia Wasikowska, an impetuous, unrefined bloodsucker whose presence points to the sort of perception Adam and Eve have spent their lives attempting to elude. “It’s the 21st century!” Eve admonishes after one of her sister’s more egregious indiscretions.
Jarmusch’s treatment of even this climactic action remains wry and distant, as Only Lovers Left Alive is marked by the director’s sleepy, half-remembered dream aesthetic, here augmented by Jozef van Wissem’s haunting, fuzzy guitar strums. The style deceptively disguises the vigor pulsing beneath the film from the hypnotic opener, which finds Jarmusch’s camera hovering and circling Adam, Eve, and a vinyl record in a transfixing sequence capturing both the doldrums and appeal of vampiric eternity—it’s somehow languid and spirited all at once, and I’m not sure the essence of vampires has ever been captured so efficiently. Jarmusch continues to cloak the film in a somber air and often surrounds its inhabitants with dusty, decrepit locales that reflect Adam’s despair that he’s at the end of history, looking on as a frustrated, genius outsider as humanity seems frightened of its own imagination.
And yet, the film is just so damn alive and full of reaffirmation; even among such ruins and the sobering discovery that even the undead face death, Only Lovers Left Alive finds solace in pleasures small (blood popsicles!) and large (love). At 61, Jarmusch isn’t so much a punk rock enfant terrible as much as he’s a wizened sage; at one point in his career, he may have identified more with Wasikowska’s brat (she's even named Ava, perhaps a nod to a similarly-named character in Stranger Than Paradise)—now he’s content to canonize two venerable lovers who still have much to learn and to live. Age is inevitable, but becoming a square is not. After all, Adam and Eve are cooler than cool, their retro-chic even extending to the pseudonyms they eventually use: Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan, two literary romantics and curious choices to be sure. Like Joyce’s alter-ego, Adam might consider history a nightmare from which he’s trying to awake, while Eve is certainly quite unlike Fitzgerald’s infamously careless and shallow lover. Taken together, these references seemingly don’t exist beyond reflecting the exact sort of droll cool factor Jarmusch champions throughout Only Lovers Left Alive: if you can’t help but get a kick out of these wry nods, then perhaps you have lived well.
Jarmucsh’s literary bent also allows the film to comment on its central creatures. One of Eve’s more pointed remarks is a lament that Adam never got over mixing with “Romantic assholes” like Shelley and Byron, a loaded, pointed reference to the vampire’s origins in pop culture. Are vampires a textbook case of arrested development? After all, so many portrayals are still haunted by a brooding, Byronic temperament—isn’t it about time they got over themselves? Jarmusch’s judgment isn’t harsh. Fittingly, Adam and Eve endure a dark night of the soul; upon emerging on the other side, Eve muses, “We’re finished, aren’t we?” The answer comes swiftly, and never has the baring of fangs felt so welcome, invigorating, or playful. If even the cynical, worn-out undead can be so cool, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. Buy it!
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