Thoughts on Only Lovers Left Alive

Though I love film, I have been remiss in investigating the works of Jim Jarmusch. His films, such as Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, have lingered on my instant queue for far too long. After having watched Only Lovers Left Alive, I think a Jarmusch binge is in order.

Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the most distinct experiences that I’ve had watching a film in some time; distinct in that it avoids all the tropes one would expect from a film of this subject matter. Much like the zombie obsession of today, a few years ago, vampires were unavoidable. Thanks to the film and television adaptations of the works of Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris, the vampire experienced a resurgence in popularity, matching and perhaps even exceeding the Anne Rice vampire craze of the early 90s. However, despite the popularity of Twilight and True Blood, some have hungered for a return to the classic vampire, more akin to those depicted in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. The vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive fit into neither category. This is a good thing.

This is not a thrill ride that builds steadily, twisting and turning its way to a bloody climax. This is an off-kilter tale about the time in between dramatic occurrences, about what a vampire would do in the real world. Though they cannot walk in sunlight, they sleep in beds rather than coffins. Though they drink the blood of humans, they have long since given up hunting, instead bribing hospital orderlies for thermoses of donated blood. Without the distraction of hunting and with a seemingly endless supply of money accumulated over their long lives, what are these vampires to do?

Only Loves Left Alive does not seek to answer this question; it merely show us the consequences of life without end. The two main vampires in question are Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton respectively. Though they are married, Adam and Eve begin the film living apart from one another. Adam languishes in an old house on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit while Eve enjoys the nightlife and culture of Tangiers. Though he is a successful musician, Adam is disillusioned with the modern age and the social degradation he believes has come with it. Eve senses Adam’s anger and sadness and realizes that he has lapsed once more into depression. Fearing that he may hurt himself, Eve comes to Detroit, hoping that together she and Adam can push through this episode and continue their eternal lives as they did before.

The performances are the highlight of this film. Tom Hiddleston gives real weight to a character that could have easily been one note. Hiddleston’s Adam is a creature that masks his pain with sarcasm and forced ambivalence. Hiddleston manages to imbue Adam’s many whispered questions and bleak proclamations with all the weight of Adam’s years, making the character come off as an ancient in crisis rather than a whining ass. His darkness is balanced by the general positivity of his partner, Eve, played by the ethereal, sublime, and altogether brilliant Tilda Swinton. Swinton’s Eve is someone who actively seeks life, devoting her time to study and travel. Unlike Adam, she actually has friends, including the wonderful and seemingly omnipresent John Hurt (seriously, how many films does this many shoot every year?) as Christopher Marlowe (yes, that one). Eve is charming and adaptable, eager to experience the present while still acknowledging the importance of the past. Watching the interplay between Adam and Eve is the heart of the film and Hiddleston and Swinton’s palpable chemistry makes for some extremely enjoyable viewing.

Technically, the film is also impressive. The sets are lavishly decorated and filled with hints as to Adam and Eve’s past adventures. The color palette for the respective characters is also worthy of noting; Adam’s Detroit house is draped in burgundy, midnight blue, and black, while Eve’s Tangiers retreat is a mixture of white and blue. The direction by Jarmusch is stylish and never stagnant, managing to be creative without taking attention away from the characters. Likewise, Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography imbues every frame with beauty, capturing the solemn splendor of Detroit’s abandoned outskirts in a manner that I will not soon forget. On an auditory level, the film astounds. The score, by SQϋRL and Jozef van Wissem, is dark, gothic, and wonderfully discordant. It is the epitome of atmospheric and I am sure that I will be listening to it for a long time to come.

Though it may not offer the drama of some other vampiric works, Only Lovers Left Alive eschews schmaltz and melodrama, instead giving us some compelling characters to ponder and a slice-of-life drama that just happens to be about two eternal beings.

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