Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ presents complex, enthralling portrait of the jaded vampire

May 9, 2014

only-lovers-left-alive-poster1Only Lovers Left Alive, the long-awaited vampire drama by Jim Jarmusch, has to be one of the better date movies I’ve seen in a long time. There is something beautiful yet romantically slippery about the exquisitely matured bond between the vampire couple at the heart of the film. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) may be the first vampires of time immemorial. With so many centuries behind them, Jarmusch, who also wrote the script, presents this couple as the antithesis to the naive lovers in the Twilight Saga.

Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving/suffering vampires in only the way he can, with brilliant wit and heartfelt respect. Beyond jokes like the characters’ names, Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures, both positively and negatively. Eve can speed read Infinite Jest, and thoughtful Adam tends to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics: “Spooky Action At a Distance.” She lives more in the moment, taking up residence in an opium den in Tangiers and in the company of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who apparently faked his death in 1593 to carry on living as a vampire (he’s still bitter about Shakespeare). Meanwhile, Adam languishes in a big old house in the appropriately ghostly city of Detroit. He surrounds himself with dated electronics and uses rare instruments to compose experimental music on reel-to-reel tape to be released on limited edition 180 gram vinyl with no label. To stay in touch with Adam, Eve uses Facetime on her iPhone while Adam uses a low-resolution webcam attached to a PC tower.

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As with any romance movies involving mature individuals, love can get complicated, even with this decidedly progressive couple. Over the ages, Adam and Eve have developed a becalmed relationship. They don’t raise their voices at each other and despite the huge geographic gulf and differing lifestyles, their affection for one another does not waver. Still, a sort of tired undercurrent runs below the surface of their relationship despite a magnetism of shared experiences and an emotional investment that goes back centuries. They don’t just have chemistry, the have a fusion as deep as old bones calcifying to become one. They are tired, old souls incarnate.

Ultimately, Adam’s loneliness becomes palatable to Eve from across the globe, and she books a red-eye to fly to Detroit. He’s gone a tad mad and depressed, turning into a hoarder of sorts. Once at the cluttered mansion, Eve stumbles across a wooden bullet Adam had obtained from his human connection to the black market, Ian (Anton Yelchin). It upsets Eve with a quiet frustration, yet she handles it delicately, recognizing it as a call for attention more than a threat. The real kink comes in the unexpected arrival of Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed. She’s the most troublesome of the quartet. While the other vamps prefer anonymity, Ava’s rather reckless. Wasikowska plays her with a wide-eyed precocious smile. She’s like a mischievous elf hiding in the shadows ready to pounce with a prank. Her character adds a colorful bit of comic relief to the mostly dour proceedings.

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Still, all of the film’s characters are a delight, even if the film’s plot is spare and ambling. As it is with most Jarmusch films, it’s all about the dynamics between the characters, and he keeps the narrative focused on the nighttime activities of the vamps. The entire movie appropriately unfolds in the shadows, against a perpetual nocturnal backdrop. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, working with Jarmusch for the first time, delivers varying scenes using diverse degrees of focus and colored filters for different shades of atmosphere.

It’s all about the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, and they are ironically soulful characters. Humanity has somehow lost touch with slowing down and savoring life, unlike these undead culture vultures. Jarmusch places humans in the periphery. Some human characters are only shadows in the distance. "only lovers left alive"They roam the world on a diet of junk food and junk culture to the point that their blood has grown literally unpalatable to the vampires. Adam and Eve don’t dare bite anyone’s neck for fear of contamination by impure blood. Instead, they look for pure Type O-negative on the black market to sip out of sherry glasses. The vampires don’t even refer to mortals as human. Instead, they call them “zombies.”

The film’s score and musical sequences deserve highlighting, beginning with the sumptuously absorbing score by lute player Jozef van Wissem backed by Jarmusch’s very own band SQÜRL. The opening scene introducing us to the vampires is a brilliant montage featuring a perpetually rotating camera, turning the image around the screen at what seems to be 33 rpm— the speed of a record player. The detailed art design, augmented with beguiling costumes, all twirling ’round can feel dizzying. The sensation is heightened further with the growling vocals of Cults’ Madeline Follin and the super-delayed echoing of a blues-infused electric guitar weaving around a stomping, slow beat, which is occasionally accented with a single ringing chime. It’s a bit of sensory overload, but it captivates all the same. It could work brilliantly as a music video.

It’s not the only time music takes over for narrative of Only Lovers Left Alive in enchanting ways. When the vampires satisfy their thirsts, they act as if they are slipping away into an opiate high. RZ6A7363.JPGThe shallow focus of the scene allows their faces to drift away into blurs, fangs exposed, maws bloody and half-agape. The scene is scored with Wissem lazily dragging a melody across his multi-stringed instrument, varying each refrain with a high note and a low note. Below, a guitar squeals a low, wash of feedback. It’s an enthralling moment, which thankfully recurs once more during the course of the film.

The film is filled with many delightful scenes, as it strides along at a relaxed pace that never tries the audience’s patience, despite its two-hour-plus duration. Clearly, Jarmusch has spent a lot of time thinking about his version of the vampire. Even when they are troubled, like Adam, or deviant, like Ava, they remain interesting and even endearing. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has created a rich world that also provides a witty jab to the immature, pop-culture obsessed consumer who does not seem to know how to stop and savor the more complex arts. Yet, Jarmusch is not above offering a bit of self-deprecating critique back at his over-seriousness as channeled by these vampires. Despite its quirks, Only Lovers stands as one of his greatest and still entertaining personal statements in a long time.

Hans Morgenstern

Only Lovers Left Alive runs 123 minutes and is Rated R (there’s blood and gore, as can be expected in a vampire movie. They also talk dirty). A shorter version of this review appeared in my recap of the 31st Miami International Film Festival, which invited me to a screening during my coverage of the festival. It opens in South Florida this Friday, May 9, at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Cinemark Palace
Regal Shadowood

It could already be playing near you or be on the way. Visit the film’s website for more dates and locations.

Update 2: More South Florida art houses have announced dates for Only Lovers Left Alive: It opens Friday, June 27 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale (get tickets)and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (get tickets). On July 11, it arrives at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (get tickets).

Earlier Update: In Miami, the indie art house O Cinema has now booked Only Lovers Left Alive. It starts Friday, May 23. Buy tickets here.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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