On its surface, a vampire film is the last thing I’d expect out of Jim Jarmusch. Then again, the same can be said about a hitman movie (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Limits of Control) and a western (Dead Man). And sure enough, there’s still something very Jarmusch about Only Lovers Left Alive. Our two main characters, the vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), feel like immortal versions of Jarmusch creations — clever, literary, worldly, and also world-weary. Very world weary.
They’re also too cool like many Jarmusch characters. They’ve cultivated their taste beyond criticism and their wardrobes beyond a fixed era; their hair looks part feral and part post-punk scenester. They’ve got the shades, the gloves, the air of been-there-done-that — twice.
At one point, a supporting character calls Adam and Eve total snobs.
Yeah, maybe they are, but you would be too if you’ve watched the steady decline of the world like they have.
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Only Lovers Left Alive
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: December 5th, 2013 (Russia); December 19th, 2013 (Germany); Spring 2014 (US/UK)
Only Lovers Left Alive feels like it could occupy a space alongside some of Jarmusch’s classic films, like Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, or Down By Law. There’s a similar kind of playful boredom in the dialogue and the acting, as if everything’s a little worn down and worn out and lived in too long. Occasionally the film gets too cute about name dropping and and its little references, like a precocious child that’s eager to show off what he or she has learned from the cool aunt or uncle. The vintage guitars that Adam’s obsessed with ooze vintage chic, sure, but for every smirking wink at the cultural treasures we long for, there’s maybe a too-loving glance at a book that seems like it’s given screen time for its indie cred. Still, the big references usually work. Take John Hurt’s role. He plays the vampire Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Christopher Marlowe), and he has one of the funniest lines involving a long-standing literary conspiracy.
When the film begins, our lovers are separated, though not in any romantic way. They’re still very much in love. Eve is out in Tangier while Adam is out in Detroit. He’s severely depressed, and even contemplates suicide, which isn’t so easy for vampires. Eve eventually joins him in Detroit to cheer him up, and when they’re together, there’s a comfortable fondness about their every second in the same space. The passion muted but it’s familiar and it’s warm. When they’re side by side or in each other’s company, there’s such a sense of ease, as if they really have had centuries of shared life between them. This gets a bit upended when Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) — “not by blood” Eve deadpans — shows up from Los Angeles.
The snobbery of our lovers is rooted in their disdain for thoughtless humanity. They call the worst of the human race “zombies,” one of those clever little ideas in a film full of them — an elitist distinction among the undead. Of course the vampires are thinking, classy, brained-things; the dumb humans are the unthinking, crass, virtually brain dead things. So much of the film is tinged with a kind of regret about the world’s impending end at the hands of the zombies, whether by pollution, by war, by overpopulation, or by just plain old human incompetence and shortsightedness. “Impending” may take ages — what’s another century when you’ve lived centuries? — but given the population booms and the collapse of economies and cities, every day must seem like some part of a zombie apocalypse to Adam and Eve. Setting this sort of story in Detroit makes lots of sense.
Jarmusch plays with the tropes of vampire mythology, keeping certain well-known ideas while discarding others to invent his own. One of the notable aesthetic additions is the wearing of leather gloves. I still have no idea what the rule is behind them, but it just looks cool. Jarmusch also adds a concern over the cleanliness of human blood. With so many drugs, pharmaceuticals, and pollutants entering people’s bodies, the vampires need a pure supply so they don’t get sick. Adam’s got a hook-up with a steady stream of the clean stuff. This all puts me in mind of organic and GMO-free diets as well as notions of being authentic in the cred sense and also being straight edge. (Ironically, the vampires look like they’re shooting up when they drink blood, their fangs visible and coated in a dark red that’s the color of cough syrup.)
Like most Jarmusch movies, Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t driven by plot. Instead, it seems driven by a mood and the slow exploration of this mood. The funny stuff takes place in the quiet moments, and as vampires, Adam and Eve are sort of perfect beings to deliver the deadpan dialogue. They’ve seen too much to be too shocked, but they at least register a quiet bemusement. It’s the difference between actually laughing at a joke and just saying “That’s funny.” Maybe most Jarmusch movies have secretly been vampire movies.
I might need to watch Only Lovers Left Alive again to figure out how I really feel about the film as a whole. I was pleasantly entertained, but I didn’t quite get the immediate hit I sensed from watching Down By Law or Night On Earth. It’s not that the human element is missing from Only Lovers Left Alive, it’s just aged so much that it’s somewhat detached. Maybe it’s just the difference between liking a movie a lot and just saying “That’s charming.” The movie is more than that, at least I want to think so since I’m a Jarmusch fan; maybe I was just a bit of a zombie on my first watch.