Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
Jim Jarmusch, one of America’s truly independent directors, has been making movies since the early 1980s. Funky and cool, with his shock of white hair, Jarmusch looks the part of a downtown artist. He has cultivated a style of thematic minimalism, where not much may happen, plot-wise, but where the vision he creates stays with the viewer long after the film is over. I still, to this day, in my dreams, see images of the drunk Finn at the end of Night on Earth, or of Johnny Depp floating away in a boat at the end of Dead Man, or of Bill Murray standing at a metaphorical crossroads in Broken Flowers. They’re that visually resonant and powerful. His films can also be quite whimsical, as witnessed by the three inmates (Roberto Benigni among them), chanting “I scream – You scream – We all scream for ice cream” in Down by Law, before escaping from jail and fleeing through the Louisiana bayou. I love his movies and the experience they bring me, but I can also find them quite tiresome when they reveal themselves to be not much more than empty hipster formalism. Still, his is a welcome voice in the cinematic firmament, and a reprieve from the even more tiresome world of recycled blockbusters that fill our megaplexes.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about vampires experiencing existential angst who struggle to remain civilized in a world of zombies (which is what they call normal humans), and has a lot to recommend it. Like Adam, the Rube Goldberg-like vampire (dreamily creating inventive mechanical machines where a simpler modern digital device would suffice) played by Tom Hiddleston, it’s a little too clever for it’s own good, but it nevertheless offers up many pleasures to savor. Just as Adam and Eve (the slightly less languorous vampire played by Tilda Swinton) ravenously devour a bloodsicle (O negative on a stick) but then almost instantly want more, so we, too, can enjoy every second of this movie yet emerge severely undernourished. Every shot feels carefully composed, and the meticulous details of the production design draw us in to the lovely yet torturous torpor of life everlasting. Eternity has never felt so gorgeously boring.
Adam lives in Detroit, while Eve lives in Tangiers. Chances are these are not their real names, though we never learn too much about their earlier lives. What we do know is that Adam is currently a secretive musician with a cult following, whose handler, Ian (Anton Yelchin, serviceable in an underwritten part), provides him with everything he needs but blood. Determined both to avoid attention and to hold on to a semblance of his former humanity, Adam gets his sustenance from bags of plasma, which he purchases under the table from a complicit doctor (Jeffrey Wright, quite fine, as always, even in a tiny part). Eve lives in Tangiers, similarly disdaining actual human hunting, and pals around with Christopher Marlowe (a wonderfully world-weary John Hurt) – that’s right, the Elizabethan poet and playwright, long undead – who is her black-market connection to her own blood supply. Adam and Eve are a couple, even if they live apart, and they communicate via videophone (she on an iPhone, he on a crazy contraption of his own invention). But Adam is in despair (what is a decent vampire to do with himself after centuries of existence?), and when Eve discovers that he may plan to kill himself (via a wooden bullet he orders from Ian), she flies to Detroit to console him (night flights only, of course).
Most of the film takes place in the shadows – these are not your Twilight vampires, able to survive in sunshine – which lends a sickly pallor to everyone’s skin tones, even that of the humans. Indeed, the world appears disease-ridden: another reason the vampires don’t suck blood directly from the carotid artery of just anyone is to avoid getting sick. HIV, drugs, alcohol and other assorted sicknesses abound, and being undead is no shield. Is Jarmusch saying something about the state of our planet, or just having fun layering detail upon detail, as he so often does? What I do know is that, from the opening vertigo-inducing overhead introductory spinning shots of both Adam and Eve in their respective lairs, I was hooked on the visuals, and didn’t much care what the film was about. Both Hiddleston and Swinton are beautiful to behold, and perfectly capture the desperate despondency of immortality. When they finally meet up, and lie on a bed together like heroin users after a fix, the utter splendor of the composition from cinematographer Yorick Le Saux almost makes the entire film worthwhile. If you can stay awake, that is. For a while, Mia Wasikowska, as Eve’s reckless sister, hungry for blood fresh from the source, shows up to liven things up, but otherwise the pace of the plot mirrors the pace of the main characters’ live.
So fortify yourself with a strong shot of caffeine – or O negative, if that’s your thing – and give the film a chance. It may work its magic on you, but even if it doesn’t, you should still appreciate the artistry in display.