31 Days of Halloween, Adam and Eve, Anton Yelchin, art films, auteur theory, Bill Laswell, Christopher Marlowe, cinema, Dead Man, Detroit, drama, ennui, eternal life, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Ghost Dog, hipsters, horror movies, husband-wife team, independent film, Jeffrey Wright, Jim Jarmusch, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Movies, Only Lovers Left Alive, romance, romantic films, Tangiers, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Vampire Code of Conduct, vampires, vampires vs humans, writer-director, youth vs old age
In certain ways, the classical notion of vampires is equitable with the current phenomena known as “hipsters”: vampires are intelligent, urbane individuals who look down on the dregs of “normal” society, take pleasure in obscure, archaic entertainments, consider themselves to be more sophisticated than those around them and lament the tawdriness of the modern age in contrast to purer, more interesting “times gone by.” Minus the blood-sucking bit and aversion to sunlight (well, perhaps not completely forgetting the aversion to sunlight bit…), that description sounds an awful lot like the current conception of hipsters. At the very least, both groups appear to share a common attribute: a completely world-weary and jaded viewpoint that makes snark and sarcasm more natural go-to responses than honest simplicity. For bored, ageless vampires, the business of “living” appears to be as much of a burden as “regular folks” are to the modern hipster. The whole thing is just so…gauche.
Auteur Jim Jarmusch’s newest film, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), takes the above parallel between vampires and hipsters to its logical extreme, positing Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as the bored, ageless vampires Adam and Eve, doomed to cast a disparaging eye on the wreck that is humanity for more centuries than they care to recall. Or, at least, that’s definitely Adam’s take on the whole mess of existence. In fact, he’s so agitated with the inanity of the “zombies” (the vamps favorite descriptor for humanity) that he’s commissioned a wooden bullet and plans to commit the ultimate act of bored defiance: if this world won’t cease its tedium, he’ll just have to cease his existing.
Eve, on the other hand, views things just a little differently. In fact, it’s probably easiest to view Eve as a Gothic variation on the whole “manic pixie girl” ideal: unlike Adam, she hasn’t lost her sense of joy at being alive. As she sees it, living for hundreds of years can get tedious and humdrum, of course, but it also allows for more experiences and wonder than any “regular” person could ever have. After all, she’s best friends with the one and only Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt)…how many “regular” people can say that?
This contrast between Adam and Eve forms the foundation of Jarmusch’s film, his rather belated follow-up to The Limits of Control (2009). As befits someone who tackles genre films in the most unconventional ways possible (Dead Man (1995) is a trippy art-film masquerading as a Western, while Ghost Dog (1999) is a treatise on Eastern philosophy filtered through a gonzo Mafia framework), Only Lovers Left Alive is a highly unconventional film. For one thing, there isn’t a whole lot of narrative thrust to be found here: much of the film’s running time is taken up with the relationship between Adam and Eve and what happens when she leaves her home in Tangiers to come see him in Detroit (despite being married for, apparently, hundreds of years, the couple live across the world from each other, which has to one of the handiest metaphors for long-distance relationships in some time). Plot points do raise their heads from time to time, of course: the couple is visited by Eve’s young, out-of-control sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), and must figure out how to replenish their exhausted blood supply. On the whole, however, Jarmusch is largely uninterested in the vagaries of a traditional plot: this is all about atmosphere and vibe, two fronts which Only Lovers Left Alive really takes to the bank.
More than anything, Jarmusch’s newest film is an art film: the emphasis is most definitely on mood, with evocative shots, exquisite slo-mo and deliberate framing taking precedence over any traditional narrative devices. To that end, events sometimes come and go with a sense of arbitrary randomness: Adam’s best friend, the human Ian (Anton Yelchin), is dispatched early on but it so much as cause a ripple in the narrative. Ava seems poised to serve as some sort of villainous character (she’s so selfish, obnoxious and derisive towards humans that she feels cut from a much more traditional “vamps vs humans” film) until she’s pretty much written out of the story without so much as a second thought. Adam appears to be a rock star, of some sort, and much is made in the film about him constantly hearing his music in surprising places (a restaurant, for example) but this ends up having no bearing on the story whatsoever. Like much in the story, these various plot ends aren’t meant to be tied up neatly: they’re used for seasoning, like salt on a steak.
Lacking any sort of driving narrative, the responsibility for the success (or failure) of the film rests solely on its considerable craft: as with anything else in his catalogue, Jarmusch is more than capable of not only making this work but making it work spectacularly well. For one thing, Only Lovers Left Alive looks fantastic: the well-lit daytime scenes may seem a little blown-out but the night-time scenes are exquisite and highly evocative. The score, all hyperbole aside, is a true thing of beauty: not only does it manage to elevate the film, as a whole, but Jarmusch’s musical choices are just a ton of fun, all on their own. The scene where Adam plays his music is pitch-perfect (apparently, vampire music sounds like droning, Eastern-tinged shoegaze, which makes complete sense), as is the truly nice moment where Adam and Eve dance to a Motown tune. The Bill Laswell instrumental that closes the credits totally rips and this was the first art film I’ve seen in sometime that practically demands I check out the soundtrack.
As with all of his films, Jarmusch assembles a first-class ensemble and puts them through some pretty excellent paces. Hiddleston and Swinton are absolutely magnificent as the ageless lovers: not only is their relationship genuinely romantic but the pair make a truly unearthly couple…they not only look but act and sound like age-old creatures living in an era not of their construction. Wasikowska turns in another great performance as the childish, casually evil Ava and is quickly proving to be one of this generation’s most capable genre actors. It’s always good to see John Hurt in a film and he tears into the character of Christopher Marlowe with gusto, although I wish he got a little more screen-time. Likewise, Yelchin and Wright turn in great supporting performances as Ian and Dr. Watson, respectively: Hiddleston’s scenes with Wright are definitely a highlight of the film.
As a huge fan of Jarmusch’s work (Dead Man is one of my all-time favorite films), I went into this expecting nothing short of greatness and, for the most part, my expectations were met. Only Lover’s Left Alive is definitely an extraordinary film, from the peerless performances to the gorgeous cinematography and back to the picaresque locations (the dilapidated, ramshackle setting of the once-might Detroit makes a pretty awesome, if obvious, metaphor for a vampire film, since the city seems as undead as the vampires). That being said, I still found myself slightly letdown by the film: there’s nothing inherently wrong with the picture – truth be told, there’s a lot about it that’s very, very right – but it still manages to feel somehow slight, at least when stacked up against his previous work. Whether this due to my perception or Jarmusch’s intention, there definitely seems to be a disconnect (at least for me), a disconnect that I rarely noticed in his earlier films.
Ultimately, however, my slight dissatisfaction ends up being a pretty moot point: Only Lovers Left Alive is a pretty great film and certainly one of the more interesting vampire films to emerge in some time. The main idea, that ageless individuals with access to all of the music, art, history and time in the world, can still manage to be bored and listless is an extremely relevant one in this day and age of the Internet: after all, humanity now has access to just about everything that Jarmusch’s vampires do and we’re not content, either. It’s an interesting notion, is this idea that having it all really means we get nothing. It’s certainly not the kind of idea that’s par for the course in most vampire films. When you’re dealing with Jarmusch, however, “usual” and “par for the course” are pretty meaningless terms: he’s been doing it his own way for over 30 years, now, and I’m imagining he won’t be stopping anytime soon.