Sunday, May 4, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is a drama film about two old souls staring bitterly at modern civilization, quietly searching for their place in a changing world.  It is also an arthouse film about vampires.  Directed by veteran artsy auteur Jim Jarmusch, creator of such films as "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" and cultivator of one of most bizarre haircuts in modern Hollywood, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is a movie more about the philosophical exhaustion of immortality, rather than the exploitative fangoria that has dominated vampire cinema for decades.  Originally this movie was screened at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it lost the Palme d'Or to "Blue is the Warmest Color", but it just got a limited US release last month.  The two leads, an undead married couple, Adam and Eve, played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, are not monsters, they're well-read, extremely artistic, and connoisseurs of human genius, using Einstein's theories as bedtime stories.

Despite the age difference of the actors - Swinton is a full twenty-one years older than her younger co-star - Hiddleston and Swinton make for a believable couple.  The brilliance of their acting is the core of the entire movie.  Hiddleston is showing a lot of range here, this is a far cry from the arrogant comedy of his supervillain, Loki.  Visually Jarmusch turns them into opposites of each other.  Adam's black hair and black suit* matches his dreary view of the world, while Eve has platinum hair the same pale color as her skin skin and white clothing, which alludes to her relative optimism.  Most of the film is a long argument between these two immortal watchers of humanity about the worth of our species, who Adam dismissively calls "zombies".

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is essentially a movie without a plot.  There is no great threat pushing down upon Adam and Eve, beyond only the passage of time.  Perhaps there is the red-herring or two that could signify a plot beginning, but it never emerges as a fully formed danger.  Off in the distance there are fans of Adam's music - a kind of shrill mixture of modern rock and 18th century funeral music - who are slowly hunting down his home.  Blood is becoming increasingly difficult for vampires to drink since modern humans are filled with a complex chemistry of drugs and chemicals.  But most of the film is simply Hiddleston and Swinton either hanging within their moldy nests or driving around the quiet wilderness that is post-urban Michigan.  There is this sad sense that these characters may have reached the end of their time here, which in turn, is foreboding for the fate of the human race.  And ultimately, this is enough for the movie to work, it doesn't actually need a villain.  "Only Lovers Left Alive" is a mournful, soulful film, one that moves with its own quiet speed as it explores the lives of two fascinating people with fangs.  It is one of the best movies of 2014 so far.

Joining the two romantic leads is a very small cast of supporting actors, all of whom are fantastic.  John Hurt plays an elderly vampire in Tangiers, who is none other than the Elizabethan dramatist, Christopher Marlowe, having out-lived his rival Shakespeare and several English dynasties as well.  Kit Marlowe is very much on the end of his life, having been poisoned by the impurities of modern human blood, hobbling himself on crutches while bitterly reminiscing about how his works are completely unknown outside of Literature Majors.  Of course, William Shakespeare's works, which he also wrote**, are world classics.  Adam's only "zombie" friend is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a young man who works for him.  Ian is ignorant of his boss being anything other than a cool eccentric artist, and honestly works for him by acquiring gorgeous classic guitars and - for darker purposes - a custom-made wooden bullet.  Then there is Eve's sister, Ava, played by Mia Wasikowska***, an incredibly perky but dangerous vampire, insatiable for blood, who proves to be the most annoying of houseguests when she pops in unexpectedly.

Vampires are the ultimate hipsters.
All of this is set within the ruins of the modern world - not some city abandoned because of nuclear war or a plague - but rather the post-apocalyptic landscape of Detroit, where Adam lives as a recluse, keeping an old house full of antiques within an empty city block where nobody will bother him.  Eve herself prefers the older but more vibrant city of Tangiers, which is teaming with life.  She seems to be the more emotionally mature of the couple, perhaps older (ages are never given), while Adam seems set on an adolescent mind, though ironically centuries past his teen years.  Eve can look at the world as it is, and see beauty even in its failures.  Adam can only constantly judge the zombies, and finds us always to be lacking.

Since "Only Lovers Left Alive" is a movie that is virtually plotless, it is also a film that could be easily misjudged as "slow" or "boring".  Again, this is not a horror movie, it is not a typical vampire adventure where the focus is about piling up victims.  The focus is instead on the characters and their reactions with the modern world.  It seems that Jim Jarmusch is making a very subtle jab at the decay of the United States and its power.  Detroit was once considered a wonder city, a model of industrialism and a proud producer of great American products.  Now it is a wasteland, somehow darker and more depressing than even Paul Verhoeven's over-the-top predictions of its future back in the 1980s in "RoboCop".  While the characters walk through a real-life parking garbage built out of the shell of a dead grand theater, they argue over whether there are any worthy humans left, and if the undead afterlife is even still worth living.  There are quiet whispers of mankind's upcoming doom, as the vampires warn that our wars for oil will spread into more terrible wars over water, as steadily the American Empire loses its grip over the world.  And how could we ever hope to bring stability to Baghdad?  We cannot even bring stability to the completely empty streets of Motown.  And there is something much more terrifying about the state of Detroit, its life blood literally sucked out by the ravages of economics and political unrest, than just a silly Romanian man with fangs running around, murdering rich London ladies.

Awww... They do love each other!
"Only Lovers Left Alive" fits a niche I don't think many of us ever imagined:  a bloodsucking answer to Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy.  If Jesse and Celine manage to work out their troubles from last year's fabulous "Before Midnight" and then lived for a few more hundred years, they could be Adam and Eve in this movie.  It is a film that manages to make the most out of a very simple showpiece:  the quiet, slightly exhausted affection that two people could have after living for an unimaginable length of time.  It is an incredibly simple movie, one whose charms that can almost never be described.  Beautifully shot, lovingly made with deep respect for its own characters, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is not merely the best vampire film I've covered for this blog, but an extremely creative film that brilliantly explores a whole new dimension of immortality.

* As it turns out, Tom Hiddleston could ever easily play Neil Gaiman's Dream from "Sandman".

** Wait, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is Anti-Stratfordian?  BOO, ZERO STARS!

*** Mia Wasikowska is playing essentially the opposite character type from her role as the quiet, disturbed India, in last year's "Stoker".  Which by the way, was a movie I mistakenly thought was going to be about vampires when I saw it.  It was not, though perhaps there was some vague metaphorical allusion to vampire somewhere.   So now a year later, Wasikowska is finally getting her chance to be a Nosferatu, and it is awesome.  She is an actress with a lot of ranger.


  1. Loki as the prince of stories.....
    Hmm maybe that could work. I'm just not sure his sense of joy of for lack of a better term is not what I imagine Morpheus is. Still I think I'd be better off then the rumored Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Dream. But for me as important dream's casting as, the most important is whoever plays death. Out of curiosity who would you want to play death, I was tempted for the longest time for Zooey Deschannel to play here, but now im not so sure.

    Sword of Primus

  2. Tom Hiddleston as Dream? Yes, please!

    I'm thrilled to hear that this movie is actually good. It sounds like the kind of existentialism I love. I also like that every screenshot has the couple posed perfectly, aesthetically speaking. Such elegance.

  3. If you like Jim Jarmusch then Broken Flowers is my favourite film of his. No vampires but it has Bill Murray being amazing.Bill Murray said it was his favourite performance in a film that he felt he could never top, he said having just made the film and obviously went on to make others but it was a great performance, worth seeing if you like Jarmusch's languid style.