'Only Lovers Left Alive'
of the drug life in Only Lovers Left Alive
JIM JARMUSCH'S FIRST FILM in three years taps a commercial vein—vampires always sell, even given an all-mood, little-plot film, however lambently shot by Yorick Le Saux. Only Lovers Left Alive is an ultimately enrapturing love story, set on the border of gentility and decadence.
The lovers are introduced in a matched set of circling shots from the ceiling: one black-clad male Adam (Tom Hiddleston) with black peekaboo hair; the other, Eve, a nigh-albino (Tilda Swinton) laid out pale and fair in a Slavic caftan. Fascinated with idlers and ramblers throughout his career, Jarmusch finds a pair too inert even to die. They're bloodless aesthetes, richer than Lucifer. Twenty dollar bills litter Adam's floor like fallen leaves. They're not killers by vocation, but enrichers of the human sphere with their art and craft. They're sippers of discreet portions of blood in crystal cordial glasses.
The two have been missing each other. Eve leaves her home in Tangier and comes to Detroit where Adam is a nocturnal, reclusive musician, dwelling in a shuttered house, pestered by fans who ring his doorbell. Adam has an intermediary with the world of "zombies," as he calls humans.
Only Lovers is a romanticized version of the drug life, overlaid on a vampire romance; the relationship between Adam and his human assistant, Ian (Anton Yelchin), is like the relationship between a dealer and his best customer. It's friendly enough, but it's a friendship that doesn't go that thick or deep. Adam requires the finest vintage guitars and old vinyl. One evening, he pays Ian to find a bullet tipped with the densest hardwood: "It's for an, er, project. An art project." The need for a weapon signals the arrival of the film's serious trouble-maker: Eve's Lilithian sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).
In interviews, Jarmusch has said that immortals would seem like snobs. They weren't in Wings of Desire, for example. Perhaps there's snobbery in the idea that these two loungers were well-known once, and that Adam was the most famous Hungarian of them all. It's possible we humans, living our dreary short lives, saying the same damned things we were all saying 1,000 years ago, would get on the nerves of the long-lived.
There is contrast to that indifference to humankind in the film: Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) turns out to be alive, his face lacy with benign wrinkles, living in Tangier and giving English lessons. I wonder if Jarmusch is suggesting the flourishes of Elizabethan handwriting rhyme visually with Arabic calligraphy? But even Marlowe denounces a certain upstart crow; the argument that anyone but Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is the vice of snobs.
The pleasure of writing about vampires is that once someone adds to the lore, that proves it could happen elsewhere. In the Philippine-made film Vampire Hookers, noble John Carradine (as a Manila bloodsucker) claimed Shakespeare as one of the undead. Spike (James Marsters) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer used to squeeze some blood from a plastic hospital bag into his coffee mug before nuking it to warm it. This kind of scene demonstrates the wisdom of getting it straight from the hospital instead of from the unwashed neck. (Adam has a regular source, a corrupt doctor played by Jeffrey Wright.)
Even before the fangs show in the half-smiles, the movie luxuriates in the charm of good-looking actors doing very little. Wasikowska's previously undemonstrated capacity for mischief and wiggliness enlivens the movie when it begins to get static, in the same way that the unwanted Hungarian niece upended the characters' lives in Stranger Than Paradise. This is Jarmusch's warmest work. United, our lovers drive, without fear, all night in Detroit, looking at the wanton destruction. They see the cars parked in the Michigan Theater's shell, which is right up there with stabling horses in the Vatican. Yet Adam prophesizes that half-dead city's resurrection, since it is rich with water in a world ever-poorer of it. Strange to see a vampire movie arguing that the sun also rises.
123 MIN; R