The lovers in Jim Jarmusch’s fantastic film, Only Lovers Left Alive, are Adam (Tom Hiddleston, excellent) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, fine), a sophisticated couple both in love with each other and with art and science. They’re also vampires, but they’re far from the emotionally stunted teenagers that tend to haunt the genre. This pair are ultra-cool aesthetes in a committed, cross-continental relationship, an arrangement that can work when time is never in short supply.
She lives in the exotic Tangiers, the perfect locale for someone with such a joie de vivre, where she spends her time with her friend, Kit Marlowe (John Hurt). Yes, the Marlowe that purportedly wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and who, in the film, refuses to come clean after centuries, because what was most important was getting the work out. Adam’s chosen home is the decaying urban wasteland of Detroit, an appropriate reflection of his psyche. He lives a reclusive life as a pack rat with a collection of instruments and gadgets spanning centuries. In his black clothing and thick eyeliner, he looks like a glam rocker. He’s a bit of a renaissance man and genius, who dabbles in science, composes music, and fools around on multiple instruments; he notably gave Schubert the “adagio” in one of his string quartets.
The only teenage impulse between them is that Adam has a tendency to fall into existential crises, and he’s suicidal and depressed when the film begins. A conversation via Skype – she on her iPhone and he on his computer, which is hooked up to an old cathode ray television – makes it clear to Eve that she needs to reunite with Adam. Like the particles in Einstein’s theory of entanglement that Adam so admires, they, too, are connected via “spooky action at a distance”.
When Eve arrives, he greets her in what seems like an antiquated formal custom: Jarmusch imagines that surviving centuries means you also pick up bits and pieces of culture from along the way. Adam wears a dressing gown from the eighteenth century, and Eve has the uncanny ability to read multiple languages, identify wood precisely by feeling it, and recognize any television show from the past fifty years. The couple have a great shared appreciation for objects, one of the few things that survive the generations. Jarmusch highlights this obsession, filling the frame with a variety of vintage guitars Adam is about to purchase, or lingering on a spinning LP that the couple dance to.
Having survived centuries, Adam and Eve can bide their time, and Jarmusch does the same, favouring character and atmosphere over plot. The only real conflict that drives the action is the arrival of Eve’s vibrant but troublemaking younger sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska) who can’t control her impulses. Eva is quite taken with Adam’s gofer, Ian (Anton Yelchin), a long-haired twentysomething who brings Adam whatever he may need, from vintage guitars to a custom-made wooden bullet. Like a proper brother-in-law – and the grouchy old fogie that vampires tend to also have in them – Adam’s Pavlovian response to anything Eva says is to roll his eyes.
The simple plot lets Jarmusch focus on what he’s most interested in here: his two incredibly attractive and charismatic stars, their relationship, and the geniuses and beauty they worship. Adam and Eve converse at length, discussing their passions and their observations. They drive through the abandoned streets of Detroit, as they lament how the humans, whom they condescendingly refer to as zombies, are destroying the world and mired in minutiae. At one point, Adam asks, “Have the water wars begun yet? Or is it still all about the oil?” The only zombie we meet is a hipster, which keeps their snobbery from being distasteful. They’re attuned to the cycles of life, to the birth and death of cities, and the film is full of cyclic imagery: it begins with a camera spinning around their respective rooms as they listen to music, almost in a trance.
Tilda Swinton has said that she thinks Jarmusch has been making vampire movies for years; Adam and Eve, like Jarmusch’s earlier characters, are outsiders. Vampirism certainly isn’t the point in the film: like the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries it merely creates a heightened reality, a means to change our perspective and explore other issues.
Nevertheless, Jarmusch does handle the requirements of the genre adeptly, milking them both for their humour and commentary on how the times are a-changin’. The first hint that Adam and Eve are vampires comes when Adam tells Ian that he saw Eddie Cochran perform live, before realising he looks too young for that and feebly corrects himself that he meant on YouTube.
They may need to feast on blood to survive, but the days of hunting humans for it are a thing of the past thanks to widespread disease and advances in crime scene investigation: Eva refers to the old-fashioned way as “so sixteenth century”. Instead, they drink from blood bags. There’s an early scene in the film, which follows Adam’s journey to the local hospital, dressed in scrubs with a “Dr Faust” name-tag – they do have a wry sense of humour – and an antique stethoscope, to buy blood from one of the doctors (Jeffrey Wright). It gets some of the biggest laughs while also creatively dealing with the practicalities of being a vampire in the twenty-first century.
There’s an assumption throughout the film that its audience is at least almost as hip and knowledgeable as its central couple and shares their sensibilities. Not everyone will be, but it never condescends to explain it all. It’s rare to see a film that both respects its audience’s intelligence and gives us a pair of characters that are so much fun to be around. The characters are a departure for Swinton, who so often plays a cold and calculating woman but here is a warm and calming influence, and for Hiddleston, whose romantic connoisseur is a far cry from the kings and soldiers he’s so often played. Only Lovers Left Alive is easily one of the best films of the year.
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