12 March 2014


As I'm quite fond of repeating every time I review a new vampire movie, you can tell a lot from the way in which a writer/director has adapted the rules of being a vampire. In Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, vampires have to stay out of sunlight, and can be killed with a stake or wooden instrument through the heart, but laugh off superstitions about garlic and crossing a threshold without permission.

But this isn't a film about the adaptation or reverence towards those rites, but about the rules these particular vampires make for themselves. Adam and Eve are two vampires who have been in love for centuries, but they live at opposite sides of the globe, wiling their immortality away by indulging their respective passions. Eve collects books in Tangier, while suicidal Adam lives in Detroit, producing music and buying up vintage guitars. When the two reunite, each of them find their separate ways of life irrevocably changed.

But the main choice that these two, and other members of the vampire intelligentsia depicted in the film, have made is to get their blood by less violent means than attacking humans (who they unsympathetically dub as "zombies") and instead source their food from hospitals. The reason that's important is because there's a central theme of disdain for the parasitic relationship that vampires have with humans and, in Adam's outlook, vice versa.

There's a vibe of ancient hipster-ness about Adam, played with a louche sort of cynicism by Tom Hiddleston, as he coins the name "zombies" to describe what he sees as a kind of desperate cultural inertia compared to his old human buddies. He and Eve (who's played as only Tilda Swinton can) spend a lot of time name-dropping famous personalities in the world of art, music and literature when they get together, and even claiming credit for a couple of their most famous works. This is typified in a very clever supporting role for John Hurt, as a vampiric version of the playwright Kit Marlowe, who has quite an insight into the Shakespearean authorship debate.

Adam's self-imposed exile is almost a reaction to the lack of creativity that he perceives in the world. Just as he's not interested in drinking potentially contaminated blood straight from the source, he isolates himself from the world, distributing his music and acquiring collectibles through his manager/fixer, Ian, played by a Renfield-esque Anton Yelchin. In his boredom, he has Ian get him a 38. calibre wooden bullet, just so he can muse over the possibility of shooting himself in the heart. Even the arrival of Eve serves to fuck with his sense of calm, not least because her more impulsive younger sister, Eva, invades Adam's fortress of solitude shortly after.

Jarmusch's script feels somewhat laconic, and he directs it with a measured, tempered pace that really brings the characters to the fore. There's a major narrative gear shift when Mia Wasikowska shows up as Eva in the second hour, but that's not to say there's any time wasted in building up Adam and Eve up until then. Swinton could do this kind of role in her sleep, but she's on fine form as usual here, and Hiddleston does most of the heavy lifting in the first half, building an oppressive atmosphere of bitterness and cynicism with sheer might and mopey-ness.

Only Lovers Left Alive has a deliberate listlessness to it, but the lack of momentum earlier on leaves the strong performances by Hiddleston and Swinton to absorb the audience into their characters' story. Either of them would be more than equal to that task all by themselves, and the combination is powerful. Ahead of an utterly chilling final shot, it closes with a fairly blatant statement of the overall conceit of the film; a lofty dramatisation of Einstein's quantum entanglement. Then again, it's far more gratifying for a vampire film to say exactly what it's about, than to have nothing to say because it's not really about anything.

Only Lovers Left Alive is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Only Lovers Left Alive, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch

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