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.)

Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia touches on humanity’s existence in relation to the universe by taking an intimate approach to drama. It’s a refreshing twist on the end-of-the-word disaster flicks that often feel superficial and unsatisfying in a junk food way after the end credits. At the same time, von Trier shows a movie need not sacrifice impressive special effects when considering the intimate approach. Dazzling scenes of what seem to be the last seconds before annihilation bookend the film. In effect, the encounter with the sublime in Melancholia is probably more powerfully felt than in many end-of-the-world sci-fi movies that came before it. It comes close to the feeling of the starchild approaching earth in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but only comes close.

At the heart of this movie is the relationship between two sisters: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Love and tension between the two shift and flip at Justine’s wedding, which takes up the first half of the movie, and during the pair’s waiting as the cataclysmic inevitable approaches, during the second half. A series of luscious, vibrant shots in extreme slow-motion, kick off Melancholia. The images shift almost as slowly as clouds billow and morph in the sky while the mournful prelude of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolode” churns on the soundtrack. At the center of the images are the emotionally wound up Justine, her supportive sister Claire and Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr). All are outside the property of a fancy mansion by the shore as the gigantic planet Melancholia creeps on its collision course with Earth (there are also dazzling cutaways to space). Everything seems frozen in the last seconds of earth’s demise, and the dragging pace opens the film up for contemplation. One sister enjoys these last moments of life with wonder while the other suffers in helpless horror. It is one gorgeous, meditative moment after another that encapsulates the extreme reactions one must expect when the entirety of planet earth is about to be consumed by another planet, which will probably continue drifting through space, leaving no trace of this world’s inhabitants and their history. Utter oblivion of not only the present, but also the past and any hope of the future, as well.

The opening images have a dream-like quality. In fact, during her wedding reception, Justine references the image of tree roots dragging her down, which appears during the film’s prelude. This may seem like a flash forward to the world’s end, but it is actually the weight of the universe Justine feels as she battles depression. It just happens to look the same as the end of the world imagery that closes the movie.

Throughout her post-wedding celebrations to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at the sprawling country manor, Justine seems depressed beyond hope, moping throughout, avoiding the cake-cutting with a dip in the tub, not to mention having sex with one of the guests she only just met. As the movie progresses, she gets so down in the dumps that her sister must even bath her. But then the planet Melancholia approaches, growing bigger in the sky, prepared to not so subtly put her out of her misery, and she finds peace. She bathes in its glow at night, lying naked by a creek like some melancholic form of lunatic (surely the pun is intended). Now, the rested Justine must soothe her panicked sister who has a growing son and supportive husband (Kiefer Sutherland).

It’s a bit over-the-top, as one can expect by the leading pessimist of cinema. Von Trier has been quite vocal about his battle with depression, stating not only was this film his way of channeling his depression in a productive manner, but also his previous film, Antichirst, which dealt with a couple coping with the loss of their toddler son in an accident. In that film, Gainsbourg played the demented woman while her psychologist husband (Willem Dafoe) tried treating her during a retreat in a cabin in the woods. She would end up castrating him with a piece of lumber and snipping off her own clitoris. Von Trier has no comfort in the subtlety of anguish.

Therefore, it feels right that the only relief a character like Justine finds from her depression is in the impending doom of the planet earth. But it’s also a tad ego-maniacal. Where does that leave the more centered Claire when faced with the end of her life, not to mention that of her husband and child? Here von Trier’s loses his way. He is so fond with exploring the darkness he cannot see the light in anyone that might be happy. So, of course, in von Trier’s world, the mentally sane people, content and invested in earth’s continued existence, go insane. It makes for a tiresome second half of a two-hour-plus movie. Part 2, lacking in the dynamic action informed by Justine’s acting out at the wedding, and the messed up characters that parade through, including her colorful parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), becomes a bit dull and redundant. Claire now has her turn to melt down while Justine becomes some distant, crazed shamanistic enigma who suddenly finds peace. It’s no wonder Dunst won the best actress award at this year’s Cannes for her role and Oscar buzz has followed. The same was not said for Gainsburg or even the director. It’s a fault in an otherwise luscious film to watch. Yet it is still a big fault worth noting, as the film’s second half dwells on for too long. Key to any good movie is a story the viewer must feel invested in, featuring characters showing some depth, but this seems to disappear during the second half in a manner not worth spoiling in a review.

Beyond Dunst’s acting (it is also known that she too, like the director, suffered from a depression so profound she needed in-patient therapy, though she is not as vocal about it as the more shameless von Trier: read this interview). Ultimately, there is no denying the power of the simplicity in von Trier’s stylized imagery that opens and closes the film, however. His intentions are also solid, though his ego gets a bit in the way, but I feel inclined to forgive him that thanks to the character of Justine and Dunst’s portrayal of her.

Melancholia is rated R and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a discussion between a distinguished panel and members of the audience following the screening. It also opens Friday, Nov. 18, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 6:25 p.m. and O Cinema in Miami at 7:30 p.m.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)