Genre: Drama, Horror, Romance
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt
It’s not easy being a vampire recently. Reduced to bland, humourless items of desire for simpering teenagers, the wicked edge that gives them their charm has been thoroughly sanded down. Riding to the rescue comes indie genre chameleon Jim Jarmusch, who manages to inject some blood into their undead veins. His cultured take on the collapse of the modern world is bathed in a romantic melancholy punctured regularly by sharp wit.
Living outside human society, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has set up home in the deserted suburbs of Detroit. Here, he collects rare guitars with the help of unwitting roadie Ian (Anton Yelchin) and creates aural masterpieces that he hopes will never be heard outside his living room. Alive for centuries, he’s deeply depressed by the decline he sees in human society, so much so that vampires can’t even drink human blood unless it’s from a safe lab for fear of disease. It’s reached the point where suicide seems like an option, Adam even going as far as to have a wooden bullet fashioned.
Across the sea in Tangiers is his long time wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) who spends her nights fraternising with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). After a distressed call, she heads over to be with her husband but everything is shaken up when her reckless little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up unannounced to uproot their lives.
Sadness and resignation pervade every scene, creeping in around the edges until the frame is saturated. Even the moments of happiness are tempered by a bitter nostalgia for a better time. These are the urbane vampires of legend; intelligent, extremely well-read and cultural. Adam has mixed with the great romantic poets and written music for Schubert. He is a polymath, able to master technology and blessed with an encyclopaedic scientific knowledge. Eve is more rational, calm and measured and less prone to introspective despair.
Forced to live on the outskirts of civilisation, they are powerless to prevent humans from frittering away their opportunities and destroying everything. The casual disregard with which they treat their own lives galls Adam who is fully aware of the short time they have. He refers to them as zombies and doesn’t try to hide the disgust in his voice when he refers to the mess they’ve made of things. Eve is less vehement but doesn’t contradict her lover’s views.
Jarmusch portrays the perceived decline in modern culture with scalpel like precision. When Adam encounters raw talent in a Moroccan musician, he bitterly laments her fate should she ever find fame. For him, art is not about celebrity status and popular success. It’s worth it for its own sake. He has released his work before, often through other conduits, but he’s no longer willing to share the foreboding landscapes he crafts only to see them stripped of artistic merit and used in a simpler form.
Bleak as their take on current affairs is, this is not a depressing film. Bitter comments are spiked with sharp wit and hugely enjoyable references to classic figures of old. Marlowe still burns with hatred for Shakespeare, the man who got the credit for his work. Unable to let it go, he has pictures on his wall as a permanent reminder.
The pace is tempered, slow and graceful for the most part although it does start to grind to a halt before the introduction of Ava. Just as Adam and Eve have settled into a measured, sometimes ponderous existence, she breezes in, a whirlwind of energetic chaos. Adam immediately hides his blood supply and locks up his music with good reason. She is the crazy relative you humour and hope will leave because disaster follows in her wake.
Shot almost entirely at night, artificial lights glow deliciously creating a myriad of shadows for the story to unfold in. The rundown desolation of Detroit has rarely looked this forebodingly pretty. A stylish soundtrack sees hip retro music laced throughout. And then there are the performances. Hiddleston and Swinton were born to play vampires, masters of the slightly stiff, almost regal bearing that we associate with the undead. They also strike up a strong connection that oozes centuries of shared history, and in their own way, love.
Only Lovers Left Alive is undeniably indulgent, sometimes to a fault, but it is rarely less than captivating. Adam and Eve may just be bohemians railing against necessary progress, or they may have a point, but their loathing for the world they live in and their abandonment of hope as they cling ever more tightly to each other is a gloomy treat.