Film Review | Only Lovers Left Alive

It may be a tad too in love with its erudite husk, but Jim Jarmusch's take on the vampire mythos remains an intoxicating pleasure. 

Love never dies: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are effortlessly cool as an erudite vampire couple in Jim Jarmusch’s high-concept atmospheric drama
Love never dies: Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are effortlessly cool as an erudite vampire couple in Jim Jarmusch’s high-concept atmospheric drama

The trending power of vampires may be fading somewhat now that both the Twilight franchise and HBO’s True Blood have receded from view, but if anyone is going to restore a sorely needed coolness factor to the bloodsuckers it’s Jim Jarmusch. 

The very-much-a-New-Yorker director of ‘hangout’ films in which articulate bums do very little except converse and puff cigarettes helped define the beloved ‘70s aesthetic of American cinema – eschewing plot in favour of dryly humorous dialogue delivered by lovable deadbeats from the fringes of society.

A musician himself, Jarmusch has employed the likes of Iggy Pop and Tom Waits (the latter more than once) in a number of films – rounding off an eclectic way with casting that also includes unknown actors as well as the likes of Roberto Benigni – which not only ups his coolness factor: it secures his status as a cult icon with a finger on the pulse of fringe-culture.

This gives way to an urbane and effortless counterpoint to a ‘rock and roll’ stance – an outlaw sexiness that still finds time to indulge in classical music, high literature and – crucially – world cinema.

So never mind the fact that Only Lovers Left Alive, his stab at the trendy vampire flick, is remarkably dry on gratuitous bloodshed and vampire hunter chasing. In the place of sex, gore and gothic affectation, Jarmusch works a subtler seduction: our leads – charismatic but not showy – are the custodians of culture, and they’re here to remind us that immortality is about tedium first, glamour second.

Detroit-based and deliberately obscure musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a centuries-old vampire whose faith in both the world and humanity itself appears to be thinning out with each passing day (or rather, night).

He insists of playing the recluse – the only company he’ll allow is that of his wide-eyed admirer and drug pusher Ian (Anton Yelchin) – who dismisses the rest of humanity as ‘zombies’, Adam nonetheless pines for the company of the love of his life, Eve (Tilda Swinton).

Heeding to his desire, she flies over from Morocco to keep him company. A luminous presence, she views his misanthropy as an amusing confrontation: for her, eternal life should be savoured and used to spread kindness.

But just as happens in Jaramusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984), an interloper steps in to interrupt our protagonist’s languid bliss – this time in the form of Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a young vampire with a reckless streak.

Reactions to the film have been mixed, but given that we’ve got it late enough in our cinemas to be able to compare it to its mainstream counterpoint du jour – Dracula Untold – I think we can have some fun.

Compared to the expensive polished turd that is Dracula Untold, the pleasures of Jaramusch’s film are increased a thousand-fold. It’s almost like you get all the pleasures of vampire cinema with none of the tacky excess. Jarmusch was always a masterful director of actors – in the sense that he picks talent he’s clearly comfortable with and lets them to their thing.

Separately, the androgynous charm of both Hiddleston and Swinton is hard to miss. Swinton has been an art house queen for quite some time now, while also managing to transition into the mainstream with ease when the role is right. Her quirky features certainly mark her out, and her presence is theatrical in the real sense of the word: she commands attention with bare, focused artfulness, not shrill histrionics.

She can be both a lover and a mother and, happily, in this particular film Jarmusch allows her to be both, as Hiddleston’s whiny, occasionally suicidal Adam needs both coddling and tough love.

Hiddleston, the product of the same posh British drama boot camps that have given us the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, managed to lend a sneakily transgressive edge even to a sneering-and-scheming supervillain role as Loki in the Marvel ‘Avengers’ franchise. If he seemed like a fish out of water there, he’s a duck in water here: his wan frame and bearing being perfect for the world weary vampire he’s made to inhabit.

That said, though Jarmusch eschews juvenile indulgences often found in more commercially familiar vampire features, the – deeply ingrained – cultural snobbery gives way to some cringeworthy rhapsodising over poetry and art that makes the film feel affected in a less obvious way. A sub-plot involving Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) is shoehorned in to make a point about the lengths one should go to secure posterity for their art, but it’s not really felt.

Still, accompanied by a superb soundtrack by Jarmusch’s own band SQURL, the film remains a flawed but idiosyncratic gem. Gliding over clichés to present its unique take on the vampire mythos, it gives us an irresistible pair of lead performances nestled in a beguiling, haunting twilight world.

For once, it’s a twilight world that truly lives up to the name.

Only Lovers Left Alive was screened at Eden Cinemas as part of the Side Street Films initiative.

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