MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

only lovers left alive

Movie: Only Lovers Left Alive
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt

A veritable auteur of indie cinema, Jim Jarmusch has oft been described as a filmmaker ahead of his time. His latest picture however, the gorgeous Only Lovers Left Alive, feels more like a relic from a treasured past. Its depiction of supernatural companionship harks back to a time when such stories were rarities and not mass marketed products for young adult audiences. Without meaning to impugn the YA phenomenon in its entirety (for as I’m as enamoured of The Hunger Games and its ilk as anyone), there is something to be said for the halcyon days which gave us the likes of Interview with the Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – dark, often sinister depictions of an imagined underworld, as rich and evocative in subtext (and, in the former’s case, genuine eroticism) as in imagination. Only Lovers Left Alive, the story of two centuries-old vampire soulmates, could almost be a tribute to that era, its supernatural elements purely incidental to a main story about companionship and purpose and the insidious ennui of everyday life.

The irony to all the above, of course, is that in many ways Lovers is nothing of the sort. In typical languid fashion, it’s the story of next to nothing at all, a lethargically plotted piece full of observation and melancholy which is often throwaway, frequently incisive, and – unexpectedly – very funny. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have existed for centuries, travelling all over, absorbing and creating art and living lives blissfully unaffected by the passage of time. However, of late, Adam has grown increasingly weary with the world, maligning the auspicious impact of the “zombies” (humans) and their self-destructive paranoia. He asks a human acquaintance, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to acquire a wooden bullet so that he can bring the curtain down on his long life. However, his lover Eve, sensing his woe, flies from Tangier to Detroit to try to revive him. Things are further complicated when her errant sister and fellow vampire, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), pops in from LA.

Jarmusch’s tendencies towards languor can irritate some, but Lovers is styled around it, and never has it been more effective. Precious little actually happens in the film, as it eschews traditional narrative action in favour of a lengthy and indulgent riff on existence that’s perfectly in keeping with the agelessness of its characters. It treats time as trivially as they do, evoking the long, luxuriant hours of an unending night through the contrasting starkness of abandoned Detroit suburbia and the hidden corners of an ethereal, alluring Tangier. The sheer absence of human activity is telling, especially as Adam bitches about neurotic zombies driven mad by “fear of their own fucking imaginations” – these spaces, ghoulish and shadowed, have a richness and permanence that’s far more profound for their emptiness.

The characters, in turn, fill these spaces with melancholic meditations on lives and passions past and present. These stylings can veer into the realm of pretention on occasion and yet, more often than not, they’re darkly comic and sometimes hilarious. Moreover, there’s more than a little poetry to this ambient soul-searching. Where some films can seem contrived or preachy, the reflections on human destructiveness and irrationality seem both natural and necessary in Lovers. They flow in perfect rhythm with the lives and existences of these intellectual deadbeats, forming part of their lazy interaction with a little-glimpsed world beyond their immediate surrounds. There are riffs on writers, poets, playwrights, musicians and scientists, all voiceless presences in perfect symmetry with the story and images presented. Perhaps fittingly for a film featuring vampires, Lovers feels like it has neither beginning nor end – it’s merely an outtake, a brief intrusion into the idleness of these two fabulous idiots and a reflection on an existence we couldn’t hope to comprehend. Adam and Eve speak of wars and destruction with a detached charm, which becomes only slightly troubling when you begin to dwell on the bleak truth of what they’re saying.

The two leads are magnificent, of course. The debonair Hiddleston isn’t generally one for moodiness or cynicism but he plays it well, infusing Adam’s impossibly English exasperation with a deadpan wit. Swinton is an excellent counterpoint – where Adam is (forgive me for this) a bit of an emo moper, she is the embodiment of wonder and curiosity and light, all bright eager discerning eyes at the world around her and everything in it. They’re dressed to match these extremes, and while their relationship often has more of the maternal than the romantic to it, they are wholly believable as lovers, utterly and totally devoted to one another, in one of the more pleasingly realistic depictions of long term love onscreen. Wasikowska’s brief appearance is energising, while Yelchin is endearingly unassuming. The high point of the entire thing may be John Hurt popping up as Christopher Marlowe – an acquaintance of Eve’s in Tangier, fully embracing the conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s authorship and dismissing him (fantastically) as an illiterate swine.

These characters play out a lurid, intoxicating fantasy in a murky reality that’s impossibly bleak, ‘suicidally romantic’, and utterly engrossing. Set to a gorgeous score of atmospheric rock and darkwave, there’s something about the alien qualities of these two figures that captures the beguiling need not just for love but for purpose, particularly in infinite life. This may all be bullshit, mind, a meaningless satire played out at Jarmusch’s pen for our benefit. But Lovers is as swaying and hypnotic as the music Adam writes and as entrancing as the streak of wonder on Eve’s face. It actually left me feeling a little cheated that that rumour about Hiddleston being considered for The Crow reboot turned out to be so dreadfully untrue. He had the hair already, and could have traded Adam’s self-involvement for a fount of genuine emotion. Maybe the whole point of the piece is, as the lyric goes, the world is ugly, but you’re beautiful to me.

Score: A

Review written by Grace Duffy

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  • nickmandel

    Nice, thoughtful review. I’m anxious to see this film – great cast and Jarmusch is one-of-a-kind.

  • Mark Twain

    Interesting that Jim Jarmusch and actor John Hurt have joined the ranks of Shakespeare Authorship doubters. Their recent interview at Cannes showed how strongly and passionately they hold their convictions. Will they too be simply dismissed and ridiculed? One hopes not. Why is it that so many respected writers, actors, and directors like Gielgud, Rylance, Wells, Guthrie, Branagh, York, etc., have all questioned the “traditional” attribution? Because they KNOW Shakespeare from the inside out, that’s why. It’s a shame Jarmusch and Hurt will now be labeled by the Stratford tourist industry as “Anti-Shakespearean”, and accused by old guard Shakespeare scholars of having “psychological” issues. Let the games begin!

  • Mark Twain

    Spam go away. Don’t hit that link, my friends.

  • Stephen Moorer

    As outlined in the link at http://richardagemo.com/archives/1923,

    “in the context of the Shakespeare authorship debate, the “conspiracy theory” label is misplaced, except perhaps in a colloquial sense…. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as follows: A combination or confederacy between two or more persons formed for the purpose of committing, by their joint efforts, some unlawful or criminal act, or some act which is lawful in itself, but becomes unlawful when done by the concerted act of the conspirators, or for the purpose of using some criminal or unlawful means to the commission of an act not in itself unlawful…. As far as I know, it’s not a crime for an author to write under a pseudonym…. No crime, no unlawful means or purpose, no conspiracy, no conspiracy theory.”

    Well Said Mr. Agemo, well said.