Although 2005’s Broken Flowers was hardly a duff affair, the popular line is that Only Lovers Left Alive represents something of a return to form for Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who has remained true to his indie sensibilities for more than 30 years and who retains the ability to surprise even his long-standing fans. This latest film has been hailed as the director’s best work since either Dead Man or Ghost Dog (The Way Of The Samurai), both released in the 1990s, and on first viewing it’s not difficult to see why: though this tale of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (regular collaborator Tilda Swinton) re-visits the vampire-as-junkie allegory of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, combining heroin chic with tried-and-tested B-movie legends, crucially it has a fine script, two very good central performances and an intangible otherness that comes from the film’s constant fetishisation of an analogue, manual and earthy past. Which combine to make it a very enjoyable watch indeed.
In present-day Detroit Adam collects vintage musical instruments, recording equipment and other strange objects, which he surrounds himself with in his apartment. For centuries he has inspired musicians around the world while shunning the limelight himself, but as a result of his reclusive nature he is suffering from ennui to the point of being suicidal and has just one friend named Ian (Anton Yelchin) for company. He dresses in black, wears shades indoors and only ventures out at night to score blood, though rather than extracting it from the necks of victims he must obtain a purer supply – ‘the good stuff’ as it is referred to in Jarmusch’s screenplay – from a local hospital. Adam pretends to be a ‘Dr. Faust’ and picks up his fix illegally from a ‘Dr. Watson’ (Jeffrey Wright), as most human blood is now contaminated, and therefore of inferior quality.
A literary connection stretches halfway across the world to Tangier, where Adam’s lover Eve frets over her own dwindling supply, and scores with the help of the vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who apparently faked his own death in 1593. Eve becomes aware of Adam’s predicament during a Skype conversation and travels overnight (naturally) to Detroit, where the two rekindle their relationship and explore the run-down areas of the city together. It’s a short-lived respite, however, as Adam’s attempts to return to an even keel are hampered by the arrival of Eve’s wildchild sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) from Los Angeles (‘Great … zombie central’ deadpans Adam on behalf of Jarmusch), who is a little too carefree with the blood supply.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a clear love letter to the past, even though it still manages to embrace very modern concepts like videocalling and the ease and affordability of travel; as such Detroit and Tangier appear to be perfect locations for different reasons. The empty shells lining the streets of the former, visited at night by Adam and Eve, constantly remind you that the city’s boom years are sadly gone, with references in the script to its successful 20th Century associations with Motown and Ford forcing the point home. Even Jack White gets a mention in a somewhat self-referential move by Jarmusch, though crucially the couple visits the house White grew up in during one of their late-night sojourns, not where he currently lives; the musician – who appeared in Jarmusch’s film Coffee And Cigarettes – has relocated to Nashville.
Adam’s apartment is filled with old instruments, as stated earlier, but he has also amassed a significant amount of scientific knowledge and has built several contraptions to power his home and his vintage sports car. He spins vinyl and bemoans the lack of respect afforded to such historical figures as Nikola Tesla, while over in Tangier Eve has surrounded herself with thousands of old books that have been written in a myriad of languages and even keeps the company of a writer who later claims on his death bed to have ghosted most of Shakespeare’s plays. In her equally-dark apartment there’s a predominance of rugs and comfortable, worn furniture, and though she uses a smartphone there isn’t an e-reader or tablet in sight. When she packs for her trip to Detroit clothes aren’t an issue – she wears flowing white garments that make for a nice visual contrast with Adam – and instead she packs two cases filled with antique books. When Eve wanders the streets of Tangier at night it looks as if this city has changed little during the past hundred years or so, and it is key that both vampires have chosen to live in places that show few obvious signs of recent development, though Tangier represents stability where Detroit represents decline. Within these environments Jarmusch’s interior sets are like beautifully-decorated museums, and they certainly inform the feel of this movie – and its Luddite theme – considerably.
There is little in the way of plot, which isn’t a surprise given the director’s love for unhurried moodpieces; the story is merely driven by Adam’s depression and the characters’ need to score blood. The link with heroin is most obviously cemented by the scenes in which they drink miniature goblets of the ‘good stuff’, sinking back immediately into their sofas in a state of euphoria, oddly recalling similar shots in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. When they board planes Adam and Eve look like thin, pale, wasted rock stars, sporting the same leather-clad, zonked-out look adopted by David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop as they dropped in and out of Berlin in the 1970s. When they watch live music in Detroit (the band White Hills appear in one scene) their shades stay on all night long, though with dawn approaching there’s always an underlying reason for blocking out the sun.
The choice of music during the film is important, and carefully selected, as is always the case with Jarmusch. The director’s predilection for raw, stripped-back and uncompromising blues and soul enhances the various threads that deal with a kind of lost purity, while his own band, Sqürl, provide the experimental rock played by Adam in the film. With the Detroit setting this kind of music makes perfect sense, and yet oddly enough the decision to complement it with Jozef van Wissem’s experimental lute playing works well (hey, we all need a little experimental lute playing in our lives from time to time). When the story returns to Tangier near the end Jarmusch has his characters watch the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, whose performance in a local cafe signifies a completion in terms of Adam’s recovery and apparently triggers a new-found lust for (eternal) life, or represents a fresh start. Earlier he appears to be non-plussed by White Hills, and the simple solution offered in the story is that he needs a change of scene and a shift in terms of the culture he consumes. Does Jarmusch feel this way, or did he feel this way in recent years? It feels like the filmmaker has put a lot more of himself into this screenplay.
Jarmusch’s more recent exercises in genre exploration have concentrated on the solo male protagonist – Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers and The Limits Of Control, for example – so it’s somewhat refreshing to see a couple featuring heavily here. Given the downbeat, languid, narcotic haze of the film it’s interesting to note that the core love story is actually quite upbeat, positive and uncynical. Swinton and Hiddleston have fine chemistry as the centuries-old lovers; their characters seem very well-suited, sharing a similar sense of humour and worldview.
It’s interesting to compare Only Lovers Left Alive with the recent New Zealand comedy What We Do In The Shadows; both feature vampires using Skype, enjoying local nightlife and, more generally, exhibiting degrees of frustration at having to deal with the modern world. The latter successfully mines the horror genre for its gags, spoofing films as diverse as Interview With The Vampire and Twilight, though it is far from reliant on the mockery of the works of others. While it isn’t a comedy, Jarmusch’s film also has its own kind of gentle fun at the expense of the huge number of vampire stories that have preceded it, yet there’s barely any horror in Only Lovers Left Alive; aside from one or two displays of superhuman speed the last shot of the film is the first to actually show vampires being vampires. Trust Jarmusch, a one-of-a-kind film school rebel, to make a horror film that leaves out the horror until the final frame. I completely slept on this movie earlier in the year, and in my rush to review a bunch of well-received 2014 releases before the end of December I’m pleased to have finally watched it; it is indeed one of the year’s better efforts, as well as being one of the more unusual. I really liked its woozy ambience.
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt
Running Time: 122 minutes