Entertainment :: Movies

Only Lovers Left Alive

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 25, 2014
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Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star in ’Only Lovers Left Alive’
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston star in ’Only Lovers Left Alive’  (Source:SODA Pictures)

Jim Jarmusch brings together a little of the grotty atmosphere from "Down by Law," his penchant for jaggedly jaunty storytelling, such as saturated "Coffee and Cigarettes," and his taste for exotic locales, as seen in "Night on Earth," for an oddly lethargic, yet compelling, take on the vampire myth.

"Only Lovers Left Alive" won’t work for everyone, and for those who do admire its qualities and "get it," the film might well seem to work despite itself. After all, we’re talking about a movie in which the male lead is named "Adam" (Tom Hiddleston), and his lady love -- a woman he’s married multiple times throughout the centuries -- is called "Eve" (Tilda Swinton). They hobnob with the famous and the undead, when they hobnob at all; one old friend is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who leads a secluded life in Tangiers, drinking "the good stuff" as and when he can get a bottle from a shady French doctor and grumbling about how William Shakespeare took credit for his work. (As far as Shakespeare-bashing goes, this is decidedly more appealing than the ridiculous Roland Emmerich flick "Anonymous," from 2011.)

Jarmusch has gone out of his way to de-glamorize and strip the mystique away from the vampire genre. The lovers at the hear of the film live in shabby environments, like the artistes they are (money in various currencies strewn around on the floor; no visible means of income, but sheaves of credit cards, stacks of old books and other belongings, and first-class air travel by night flight only), but they also live their eternal lives voluptuously, sleepily, and without care.

The downside is that they also exist without much passion or interest. This is partly due to ennui: Adam has seen it all, and he’s sick of watching human beings chase their tails in the same tiny circles. (How circular is humanity’s stumbling, erratic path? Adam and Eve discuss coming disasters when mortals stop fighting over oil, start fighting over water, and burn the Southern cities in a civilization-crippling series of conflicts. Either they can see the future, or, having lived for who knows how many centuries or even millennia, they’ve simply already seen it all.) A fan of scientific visionaries like Nikola Tesla (he builds his own off-the-grid power station) and well-built musical instruments (he collects fine specimens of stringed instruments, which he might or might not play in his meticulously crafted recordings), Adam finds that human progress is far too slow and unsteady for his liking.

But there is a suggestion that their listlessness might also be the result of hunger. Indeed, instead of making themselves into something respectable, all the benighted human race has managed to do comprehensively is pollute itself to the point that human blood drawn directly from the man or woman on the hoof is toxic. To keep himself nourished, Adam pays visits to a physician -- ludicrously named Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) -- who accepts cash for thermoses full of purified blood and calls him, with some flippancy, "Dr. Caligari."

Of the two, Eve is somewhat less disconnected. She’s still capable of feeling a sparkle of thrill or a frisson of lust. Then again, she lives in Tangier, only leaving the city’s exotic streets to book the occasional flight to Detroit for a conjugal visit. It’s on one such excursion that Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a ceaselessly hungry, perpetually trouble-making sprite, shows up, promptly making herself into the sort of houseguest who drinks your best vintage, dines on your best human friend (a luckless Anton Yelchin), and leaves things in such a state of disarray that they’ll never be the same.

In terms of tone and mood, this film is of a rare stripe. There are intimations of the lethal vampiric fury and dynamic, demonic energy Adam and Eve possess, but we seldom witness their superior physical capabilities only briefly. (We also pick up on the fact that they don’t need distasteful human conveniences like working toilets.) There’s an air of tension, but it’s a sexless tension; both Adam and Eve are far too gaunt and reserved, not mention anaemic, to seem hot-blooded or seductive. There are no heavy capes or mesmerizing stares here, though there is a moment of pure alpha-predator hunting, glinting eyes and all.

So is the genre dead? Dying? Or just chicly undead? My guess is that Jarmusch hasn’t reinvented the vampire yarn so much as returned it to a place it likes to go, cyclically, for some rest and rejuvenation. Pair this movie Tony Scott’s "The Hunger," from 1983, and you’d have a swell double-bill that serves almost as a set of bookends for all the vampire movies that have come in between, from the stylish ("Queen of the Damned"), to polished rot ("Dracula 2000"), to the blushingly overripe ("Bram Stoker’s Dracula").

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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