Fiends Of The Arts: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Blu-ray review
Jarmusch achieves the impossible, twice over: not only does he make being a vampire seem cool, he makes being a hipster seem cool, too.
Only Lovers Left Alive
(Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
What’s so great about being a vampire, anyway? “Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, never die, The Lost Boys might have reckoned, but you’ve also got to contend with the hassles of body disposal, black-out blinds, vitamin D deficiency and checking ready meals for traces of garlic. And then there’s the endless ennui.
Many of these issues crop up in Jim Jarmusch’s take on vampire mythology, Only Lovers Left Alive, and yet the director might have achieved the impossible: he’s made me get the appeal of being a vampire. This is a sleek, sensual film, an elegant comedy of manners that is also a highly cerebral tribute to learning and a tactile celebration of life.
On the surface, it’s a one-joke movie: hipster vampires. Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, a reclusive rock guitarist whose funereal soundscapes are bootlegged on unlabelled vinyl and played in underground clubs. He’s slumming it in Detroit’s urban wilderness, while his wife (Eve, played by Tilda Swinton as Tilda Swinton) swans about in Tangier, soaking up the souk. OK, so it’s actually quite a funny joke, shattering the affectations both of the Twilight crowd’s emo-posturing and the cool kids who think they’re above Edward Cullen crushes, but it’s surely not enough to base a movie on.
Jarmusch knows it. As in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, the director transcends his own material by loosening the fabric, letting the story spill out wherever it pleases so that it touches on a host of subtexts. If the earlier film was most obviously a study of cultures, this one is about capital-c Culture. Any other director would have made the obvious connection between the vampirical blood fix and the needs of drug addicts, but Jarmusch hangs out with Hiddleston’s gaunt, elegant wasted visage long enough to wonder what keeps the addict going.
So Adam and Eve are embarking on a centuries-long quest to create, locate or nurture great art: life as one long art project. Their best friend, played by a delightfully louche John Hurt, is Christopher Marlowe, who used Shakespeare as a front after his supposed “death” to get Hamlet into the public sphere. The lovers continue that mission, whether collecting old guitars, carrying a library as hand luggage or enthusing about the great records left behind by the consensus – the standard-bearers of Stax rather than Motown. Like I said, they’re hipsters… but Jarmusch makes that act of fandom and discovery something to be cherished. These vampires are not reviled freaks of so many films but guardians of culture, connoisseurs even. It’s the zombies, the unthinking hordes, you need to watch out for.
Jarmusch lets this play out with unfashionably languid pacing, establishing this world with attention rarely paid to the minutiae, the practicalities, of being a vampire – cue plenty of scenes of Swinton on the phone trying to figure out a Transatlantic itinerary of night flights. Forget about the usual line that vampires are a metaphor; here they seem to be a virtually literal representation of what Jim Jarmusch’s life is like, flowing with great tunes and (kinda, sorta) fine wines – because obviously these guys are beyond the barbarism of drinking from the neck.
Of course, this perfect world is there to be shattered, and the timebomb arrives in the form of Mia Wasikowska’s petulant child of a vampire, Ava – a comedic tour-de-force that nearly destablishes the film, but deliberately so. This isn’t about good and evil, but something far more calamitous: bad taste. Wasikowska even keeps her natural Aussie twang to better draw the battle lines with her ultra-posh surrogate family. Only then comes the ennui, in a bittersweet, elegiac final act that charts the collapse of their perfect world. But unlike Twilight, you’ll feel the ennui is well earned.