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Only Lovers Left Alive – film review

April 16, 2014


A wistful slice of vampire life.

Reviewed on Friday 4th April 2014


A United Kingdom, German co-production. Written & directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska and     John Hurt. Running time: 123 mins.

The awkwardly-titled Only Lovers Left Alive marks Dead Man helmer Jim Jarmusch’s initial foray into genre film. As the story begins; we find reclusive rock star and blood-drinking immortal, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) wallowing in a state of wistful melacholia   in a crumbling Detroit – verging on despair. Fearing the world is on the brink of collapse, he has his one and only human friend, Ian (Anton Yelchin) arrange for a custom-made hardwood bullet to be fashioned; so that he may take his own life when his despair becomes all too much. Meanwhile, half a world away in Tangier Morocco; Adam’s long-time lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) hears Adam’s cry for help and makes the perilous journey to join him in Detroit. Once reunited, the pair rekindle their romance – as Eve attempts to coerce Adam from his melancholic malaise by reminding him     of the joys of life. The couple’s new-found domestic bliss, however, is thrown into disarray with the surprise arrival of Eve’s younger sister and perennial wild child Ava (Mia Wasikowska) – an LA-based partygirl cum gate-crasher with scant regard for house rules. When Ava’s self-absorbed and reckless behavior threatens to expose Adam’s reclusive lifestyle – drastic steps must be taken.

Following in the tradition of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire western Near Dark and Tony Scott’s The Hunger; Jamusch’s take on the vampire genre also shies away from using the ‘V’ word. As the film is told almost entirely from the perspective of Adam and Eve and their ilk, it would make little sense in having them using the term to refer to themselves. And in an odd way, Only Lovers normalizes the idea of vampires; being less a horror film in the traditional Gothic sense (despite the use     of a Gothic font for the titles) and more of a character piece – a gentle meditation     on immortality, nostalgia and the cynicism of old age. And much like a jaded curmudgeon; out of touch with contempory trends and increasingly unhappy with the state of the world; Adam’s growing disdain for the general human population (those whom he refers to as ‘zombies’) is beginning to affect his own enjoyment of life. Whereas Adam gains pleasure from physical possessions (he owns an impressive array of vintage guitars, valve amps and analog recording equipement – although his enjoyment seems to be waning) – Eve is much less materialistic; maintaining a zest for life; manifesting as a child-like glee for nature and spirituality and a deep-seated love for the natural world (she often demonstrates a penchant for knowing by heart the scientific Latin names of various flora and fauna she encounters). While they at first seem to be unlikely bedfellows; these beautifully-drawn characters nevertheless compliment one another as a couple in a wholly believable and truthful way.

Although it is never explained exactly why Adam and Eve have been living apart,     the connection between them is clearly strong and best described at one point when Adam relates to Eve the scientific theory of ‘quantum entanglement’ – a theory which posits that, on occassion, when two quantum particles enter into a temporary interaction and then separate – a bond is created so secure that they will be forever linked no matter how far apart the particles may be – even if they are on opposite sides of the universe. It’s a powerful metaphor for the romantic link between the two characters – a link which is evident from the film’s opening moments: where we see   a montage of spinning overhead shots of Hiddleston and Swinton laying sprawled in their respective apartments on opposite sides of the planet – as Wanda Jackson’s 1961 bluesy B-side single ‘Funnel Of Love’ plays on a turntable (spinning images of which are intercut in perfect synch with the overhead shots). It is a beautifully poetic scene which perfectly sets the tone for the entire film. As one would expect from a movie which has a musician as a protagonist, music plays an integral part in this film. And the appealingly eclectic soundtrack features a suberb mix of 60’s Motown songs with melodious, dirgy-sounding fuzzy guitar tracks (meant to be composed and performed by Hiddleston’s character) – along with a sprinkling of Middle Eastern motifs (representing Eve’s Moroccan lifestyle).

only-lovers-left-alive - tom hiddleston

The mechanics of vampirism and how the lifestyle might function logistically in a modern setting is cleverly thought-out and nicely explored by Jamusch. Rather than risking drawing attention by killing humans for food, Adam (posing as a physician) pays a crooked doctor at the local hospital to supply him with blood. Likewise, in Morocco, Eve has her long-time friend Marlowe (also a vampire) supply her with     ‘the good stuff’ from reliable sources. Marlowe, incidently, (charmingly played here     by the great John Hurt) is meant to be well-known Elizabethan dramatist: Christopher Marlowe, who was a contempory of Shakespeare’s and who here claims to have ghost-written the bulk of the bard’s most famous plays. In Jamusch’s take on vampire lore, vampires are susceptible to blood-born diseases (as much as humans are) and must therefore be extra careful in securing a safe supply. Never venturing out during daylight hours, the lovers go for numerous nocturnal romantic drives; touring the sights of a run-down Detroit; donning sunglasses in public to protect their eyes from daylight temperature-rated lights. Adam is able to finance his reclusive lifestyle by selling his music on-line – while, living off the grid, he powers his apartment with a Tesla-inspired home-made generator; drawing current from the atmosphere (inspired no less by his personal dealings with the eccentric inventor).

There is a knowing playfulness to the characters which is one of the most appealing aspects of the film; the constant name-dropping of famous historical figures Adam and Eve have personally known over the centuries; their shared enjoyment of the novelty of home-made blood popsicles fresh from the freezer and the scene where they reminisce over the ease of disposing of victim’s corpses in the Thames in Victorian London (as compared to the difficulty in attempting the same in modern     day Detroit) are little moments which add much to the overall enjoyment of the film. French lenser Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography beautifully accentuates the contrasting grey decay of Adam’s Detroit locations with the earthy tones of Eve’s Moroccan home. And the dream-like atmosphere inherent in the visuals has much     to do with the entire film taking place at night.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a wistful, authentic, playful and poetic film whose main drawcard is its flawless cast. Tilda Swinton is suitably ethereal as the earthy Eve, Tom Hiddleston (known to many as Loki from the Thor movies) is romantically brooding and Mia Wasikowska is perfectly cast as the perpetually adolescent Ava. While the film’s measured pacing may not be to everyone’s taste, those who enjoy the distinctive works of Jim Jarmusch or intelligent portrayals of what it might be like to be a vampire in a contempory world will find much to enjoy.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace-Nova Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide, April 4th 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


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