It’s not so fun to be nearly extinct
With Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch temporarily steals the vampire mode away from Stephanie Meyer. The movie, however, though drenched in beauty, is static and disappointing — and otherwise unlikely to gain purchase with the Twilight crowd, not that doing so is a desirable aim. At first the director offers a few, alas too few, good laughs, such as abounded in little early masterpieces likeStranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and Night on Earth (even then Jarmusch’s world was largely nocturnal, or at least deliciously gloomy). Then it begins to feel increasingly like spending a series of all-nighters with hippie drug addicts waiting for the Man. (Blood is like a strong drug for them and they score it rather than kill for it. Blood out in the field, in people, is too impure these days.) But at least for this darkness-soaked moment, Jarmusch has made the genre his own — more particularly, using it as a peg on which to hang favourite preoccupations, with certain kinds of music, writers, thinkers, and critiques of current civilisation that he likes. It’s a personal, haunting, deeply atmospheric movie. But nothing happens. Watching it seems to take as long as the centuries its protagonists have lived.
Naturally Jarmusch’s vampire lovers — their romance truly epic since it’s lasted centuries — are weary nocturnal hipsters. We first encounter them living apart. Adam (Tim Hiddleston, Loki in Thor, a man of impeccable diction and elegant disdain), the elder of the pair, is a musician, an audio whiz and a connoisseur of electric guitars. He resides in desolate Detroit (a redundant phrase these days), making music but cautious about releasing it to the world. His favourite word is “no.” There’s not much he likes. Eve (Tilda Swinton, who was surely destined one day to become a vampire) hangs out in Tangier, in the native quarter, where her best friend, Christopher Marlowe — yes, that one — (William Hurt) gets really good blood for her from a French doctor. He has Bilal (Slimane Dazi) an ageing younger Moroccan man who serves him, also a writer, perhaps a reference to the world of longtime Tangier resident Paul Bowles. Adam gets his at a hospital from Jeffrey Wright. (Is he a vampire too? Or just jumpy?) Blood for Adam and Eve, anyway, is is like heroin. They sip it from sherry glasses and throw back their heads as on an intense drug high (showing their blood-soaked teeth and a hint of fang). One can imagine them OD-ing.
In a video phone conversation Adam persuades Eve to come to him in Motor City, flying via Paris on two planes that take off and land at night (if that is really possible? but if you travel first class you can get anything). At the same time they get an unwelcome visit from Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), from (bad sign) L.A., who has some life in her but also has a way of messing things up. Ava spends a night with Ian (Anton Yelchin), who was a nice comically conventional young musician guy very helpful to Adam, till Ava gets hold of him. A. and E. kick out Ava and dump the corpse in some underground water (“don’t ask”) and then head back, again by night connecting flights (Madrid this time), to Tangier, where they find Kit Marlowe in a bad way, and the French doctor’s top quality blood out of stock. Is it a dead end? The tragic note doesn’t quite come off here, but it’s also true that the humour after all does continue at some level all thorough.
Adam says the world’ is increasingly chaotic due to the “zombies,” by which he simply means humans, everybody else — one of the signs Jarmusch isn’t bothering to think through the particulars of horror folklore or (perhaps as well) to spell out his critique of the world.
Maybe we didn’t know the director had even this jaded kind of romanticism in him. But as many elements here are a pleasure, others are a disappointment. Nothing is more a cliché in the vampire genre than trading tales about the famous historical figures one has run into, and yet that is what goes on between Adam and Eve. And why must Jarmusch drag in that tiresome quackery about somebody else, this time Marlowe, writing the works of Shakespeare? We aren’t meant to take any of this too seriously, but Hurt’s character seems sloppily conceived. It also seems self-indulgent, or hopelessly inbred, to show a wall full of photos of famous people Adam has “met,” partly doubtless favourites of the director’s. Nice to see Infinite Jest in Eve’s Tangier collection, even if it’s too heavy to pack for her trip. But the talk of geniuses ignored, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Tessla, Einstein, and so on, seems so routine and second hand. The play with other names, like Dr. Faust, Dr. Watson — and what about “Adam” and “Eve”, for goodness sake? — things like this are why ultimately the atmosphere of this film winds up being as near-dead as its burnt-out central couple.
Of course plotlessness could add to the film’s appeal for certain viewers, but even they may find this, a film that’s acted with passion and filmed ravishingly, winds up feeling a bit “frivolous,” exactly the word Mike D’Angelo uses in his typically heartfelt and personal AV Club Cannes review, “just a series of mildly amusing riffs” at the end, though he feels that earlier it deserves great credit for aspiring to very much more and coming “tantalisingly close to achieving it.” Because it came close for a while to being one of his favourite films ever, D’Angelo still ranked Only Lovers second of his Cannes films, just below Asghar Farhadi’s The Past.
The cold Alexa motion picture camera digital photography is by French dp Yorick Le Saux (the director’s first time with digital and first time with this cinematographer (Potiche, Carlos, Swimming Pool), who provides gorgeous yellow-drenched nocturnal scenes in both Detroit and Tangier. The music, overindulged in the film, which repeatedly comes to a halt for it, may be more freely enjoyed in the coming soundtrack album.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch (screenplay)
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska
Runtime: 123 min
Country: UK, Germany, France, Cyprus