Jim Jarmusch’s laid-back vampire drama is indelibly, effortlessly cool as it charts the long distance romance (both in time and geography) between two immortal hipsters, struggling to survive in the modern world.
While Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker I have admired, few of his films have really left a mark in a way his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, managed with an assured ease. Ostensibly a gothic horror tale, albeit one that divides its time equally between Detroit and Tangier, it is the story of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) – not the first humans, but rather heroin-chic vampires, struggling to feign interest in a world they have long since outgrown.
For centuries they have revelled in the Arts and humanity’s defining achievements, with Eve gravitating towards literature and the written word, while Adam has nurtured a passion for music, and become something of a cause celebre, albeit a reclusive, desperately secretive one – for obvious reasons.
For both, however, their primary passion is each other. Their relationship is so strong in fact, that they can go years without seeing each other, safe in the knowledge that their other passions are sufficient when they are otherwise alone. That is not to say they do not have companions. Adam has a loyal human gofer/groupie/manager in the form of Ian (Anton Yelchin), well connected in the music scene and sympathetic – if not fully clued in – to Adam’s eccentric, nocturnal needs. Eve, on the other hand, has a fellow vampire with whom to keep company, no less than the great jacobean playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).
While little of the present day holds special interest for these prisoners of the everlasting, they have evolved enough to reject bloodsucking in its traditional form, instead opting to purchase high grade blood on the black market, and avoid leaving a trail of corpses in their eternal wake. Adam visits with Jeffrey Wright’s blood specialist at the local hospital, while Eve is facilitated by Bilal (Slimane Dazi), a sympathetic local who cares for Marlowe.
However, when all three of these creatures of the night are visited in their dreams by Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s precocious, unpredictable younger sister, it marks the arrival of a disruptive force in their carefully assembled existence, and drastic measures must be taken.
Jarmusch makes it clear from the outset that he is not interested in telling a horror story, but rather exploring the day-to-day survival of educated, sophisticated artists as they adapt to a constantly evolving (and perhaps devolving) creative landscape. On numerous occasions our protagonists agonise over the importance of having their work appreciated by a larger audience, without having the spotlight turned on them as individuals. They do not strive for fame or notoriety, quite the opposite in fact – their passions lie in creating the work – but they all acknowledge that Art only exists when it has an audience.
As one would expect, Jarmusch goes all out to fetishise the various career highlights of each character’s preferred artistic outlets. Adam skulks around behind heavy drapes in the deserted neighbourhoods of Detroit, listening to vintage vinyl and recording his own morosely resonant compositions on outdated analogue technology. “I’ve been writing a lot of funeral music,” he half-jokes, before revealing that over the years he has slipped compositions into the hands of many great composers.
John Hurt’s Marlowe too fuels the popular conspiracy theory that he was in fact responsible for many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, while Eve dotes over her ancient first edition copies of great literary works, caressing the pages as she pores over them with genuine admiration.
For a film so achingly aware of its own aura, and mournful of the current state of the Arts, Only Lovers Left Alive is surprisingly funny, in large part thanks to the brilliantly dead pan performances from its two leads. Swinton and Hiddleston were born to appear together in roles such as these – pale, emaciated, androgynous, yet emanating an almost intimidating edginess that dictates rather than aligns itself with any kind of fashion or trend. But then the same could be said for Jarmusch.
Music is of particular importance in the film, and the score from Josef Van Wissem and SQURL brilliantly intertwines punk, rock, ambient and Middle Eastern influences to generate a swirling intoxicating fog of sound that encircles the audience as Jarmusch lets his camera spin slowly overhead, while his characters sigh in self-important contemplation.
Those expecting a traditional vampire film may well recoil from Only Lovers Left Alive‘s complete disinterest in terrifying its audience. What it does instead is take the hipster air of smug “been there seen that” superiority and transcend it to a blissful plateau, where all the best of what music and art and literature has offered are at our fingertips, but not in digitised downloadable form, but rather preserved in their original antiquated formats. This refined palette, elitist as it may very well be, is then washed down with a splash of the finest O Negative on the planet, and the results are cultured, sardonic, witty and quite irresistible.