Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Eve), Tom Hiddleston (Adam), Anton Yelchin (Ian), Mia Wasikowska (Ava), John Hurt (Marlowe), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Watson), Slimane Dazi (Bilal), Yasmine Hamdan (Yasmine).
Jim Jarmusch wasn’t interested in making a typical vampire movie when he made Only Lovers Left Alive – and thank god for that. Like he did with films such as his existential Western Dead Man (1996) and his East meets West gangster film Ghost Dog (1999), Jarmusch takes a well-worn genre and comes at in a completely different angle. What interests him most about vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is how long they’ve been alive – that they’ve essentially been witnesses to centuries of human history, while remaining somewhat apart from it. The film is about two married vampires – Eve (Tilda Swinton), who lives in Tangiers, and commits the history of the written word to her memory, simply by passing her hands over the pages, and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) who lives in a rundown mansion in Detroit, producing his strange, avant-garde rock music. They may be half a world apart, but they can never escape each other – nor want to. Their connection runs deep enough that they don’t need to live with each other to share it. But Adam is feeling even more melancholy than usual – he’s on the verge of being suicidal – so Eve catches a series of planes – all leaving and arriving at night – and comes to Adam. The two talk about their shared history, the stupidity of people, or as they call them zombies (“They still doubt Darwin!”), they drink blood, procured from the local hospital, that seems them into a junkie-like stupor. For the first hour, I thought that nothing except this is going to happen in Only Lovers Left Alive – and I was completely okay with that.
This is Jarmusch’s first film he shot digitally (by Yorick Le Saux) – and it suits this movie, because as we’ve seen in many films – from Michael Mann’s Collateral to David Fincher’s Zodiac – darkness is what works best with digital. Jarmusch’s camera moves a little bit more than is typical in one of his movies – including a series of mesmerizing, revolving overheard shots that capture these vampires in repose. The majority of the movie takes place in Detroit – which Jarmusch sees as an almost abandoned city – no one is around when Adam and Eve drive around in their car. It suits Adam because he wants to be left alone. He was once a rock star, and now has obsessive followers who try and track him down. Only Ian (Anton Yelchin) knows where he lives – he’s the type of hanger on who will do anything for Adam, who is only too happy to pay him a lot of money to ensure that he is otherwise left alone. Adam spends his time amongst his old guitars, monologue amps, his vinyl records, and records his morose “noise rock” – which may or may not be interesting to listen to by itself, but works brilliantly in the movie, giving the whole thing an even more morose feel. Adam is frustrated by humanity, and growing depressed – Eve is slightly older and wiser, and blames Adam’s “early influences” (“Bryon, Keats and the French ones”) on his melancholy. She tries to convince him to see point in continuing to “live” – but all he sees in that humanity has poisoned their planet and “even their own blood”. Why go on?
A semblance of a plot arrives along with Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) – who lives in L.A. Adam hates her for something that happened in Paris, apparently 87 years ago. She is reckless and impulsive. While Eve and Adam take painstaking steps to ensure their privacy, Ava simply doesn’t care. She shows up unwanted and uninvited – but Eve cannot just throw her out. She sets in motion what little plot the movie has – and keeps the movie from becoming completely bogged down in all the melancholy. It’s another dynamic performance from the young Wasikowska.
But Swinton and Hiddleston are even better. They two share an androgynous look, and when we see their naked, pale bodies lying next to each other, it’s almost hard to tell them apart. Swinton has the perfect look to play a vampire (it’s hard to believe no one else had cast as one before) – but she’s the warmer of the pair – an almost maternal figure, who comforts Adam, and looks at humanity with pity more than Adam’s disgust. This is a reminder that Hiddleston – as good as he is as Loki in the Thor movies – can do far more than that smirking villain. One of their best friends is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who wishes he had known Adam when he “was writing Hamlet” – and the pair do share a lot in common.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that I think only an older artist could make – one with experience and wisdom. Jarmusch is in his 60’s now, has been making movies for 30 years, and I think he shares much of Adam’s disdain and confusion about modern culture – a culture that seems to willfully cut itself off from its history, and remains happy in their stupidity. Adam keeps a wall of pictures of past geniuses (including Buster Keaton, a director whose career I’m immersing myself in right now) – but these are people who have long since been forgotten by most. It is a beautiful, mesmerizing film. Like all of Jarmusch’s films, it doesn’t really need a plot – he isn’t interested in one, and cramming these characters into one would somehow diminish them. For much of the movie, it seems like a downer – a look at humanity that offers little to no hope. And then the pair stumble across a bar in Tangiers, and a singer (Yasmine Hamdan) singing a beautiful song. This is something Adam hasn’t heard before – and it offers him hope. “She’ll be famous” Eve tells him. “I hope not” Adam responds “She’s too good for that”. That, in a nutshell, is what Only Lovers Left Alive is really about – and what makes it one of Jarmusch’s best films.