United Kingdom/Germany. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013. Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska. 123 minutes. 8/10
Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the Young Adult set, and Jim Jarmusch proves it with his latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive.
Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a pale, willowy woman who haunts Tangier. Reserved and aloof, she observes her neighbors from a distance, her only real friend an elderly gentleman (John Hurt) who claims he’s Christopher Marlowe.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a moody musician living in self-imposed exile in one of Detroit’s less savory neighborhoods. He’s not impressed with the accomplishments of humanity, and lives a reclusive life, preferring his music to the companionship of others. His only regular visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a local youth who procures rare instruments–and other strange objects, such as a bullet with a wooden slug–for him.
Eve and Adam are vampires; they are also longtime lovers, although they have not shared each other’s company in nearly a century. Worried about Adam’s metal state, she travels to Detroit to try to snap him out of his depression.
That’s the basic gist of Only Lovers Left Alive; it’s not a story with much of a plot. Eve and Adam are ordinary people, as ordinary as vampires can get, and they live ordinary unlives. There might have been a time when they influenced, and drew inspiration from, the likes of Poe, or Tesla, or Joe Strummer, but that was long ago. Now they’re content to just spend time together.
And Jarmusch is more than happy to sit back and let them do their thing, throwing the occasional obstacle in their way to see what they’ll do, and what repercussions arise. It’s more like watching real life than a three-act story. The pace is languid, but the film never drags.
The overriding mood is one of dark romance, not of terror. This is not a conventional horror film or vampire story. Jarmusch certainly seems to have little time for the standard fittings of such things. Vampires tend not to drink directly from the source, preferring to work through dealers such as Kit Marlowe or a sardonic blood bank employee played by Jeffrey Wright. They do so not out of compassion for humans, but because they’re concerned about their supply’s purity. Bad blood is bad news for the drinker. When they feed, it’s from brandy snifters and hip flasks instead of the exposed throats of willing (or unwilling) victims. (Everybody knows that vampirism is a symbol for oral sex, but it’s also often an allegory for drug addiction, and Jarmusch visually portrays the effects of blood-drinking in terms of a drug high.)
Jarmusch twists other tropes ever so slightly. In his hands, the idea of immortality being a curse becomes an existential malaise, genuine angst instead of emo whining. The conflict between cautious, restrained vampires versus a more hedonistic breed (represented by Eve’s “sister” Ava, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska) is pragmatic, not moralistic. Ava feels no sense of superiority from being a vampire; rather, she’s a bratty child.
Jarmusch writes the characters well, and the actors all put in outstanding performances. The film belongs to Swinton, radiant and alluring, and Hiddleston, justifying his current status as the thinking woman’s heartthrob. The chemistry between the two is phenomenal. Wasikowska is adorably dangerous, Yelchin eagerly sycophantic and simultaneously likeable, and Hurt…well, John Hurt’s always great, isn’t he?
With his location and camera work, Jarmusch creates indelible environments. Detroit, decaying and tragic, is as romantic in its way as exotic Tangier. Adding to the mood is a dense psychedelic score provided by Dutch composer Josef van Wissem in collaboration with Jarmusch’s rock band SQÜRL. Between the visuals and the music, this is a film to lose oneself in.
Working masterfully with all these elements, Jim Jarmusch gets to the heart of the vampire’s appeal: the demon lovers whose pull we are unable to resist. Cast aside the likes of Kiss of the Damned; Only Lovers Left Alive is vampire romance done right.
Thanks to Victoria.