(directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
I was annoyed to miss this at the London Film Festival last autumn, but fortunately it’s been given a limited cinema release and so off we trotted to the Odeon in Covent Garden. I hadn’t read any reviews, but decided it was worth seeing if only for the cast. I’d suspected it would be arty and beautiful and perhaps slightly pretentious, but I hadn’t expected it to be so self-aware; nor was I expecting it to be so funny. With an adolescence full of Anne Rice novels under my belt, I found myself faced with a film that was both a love-letter to, and a subtle parody of the kind of world-weary vampirism that touched my teenage heart.
As the titles unfolded in Gothic script and the slow, moody rock music kicked off, I found a fatuous grin on my lips. This film knew exactly what it was doing. As a whole it wasn’t perfect, but I can’t help feeling a kind of warm fuzzy fondness for it. It’s worth emphasising, however, that my friend – who presumably had a better social life as an adolescent and never read Anne Rice – found it less enjoyable.
The whole notion of vampires on film jumped the shark when the Twilight films took them out of the darkness and made them into sparkly emo teenagers. Luckily, however, Only Lovers Left Alive offers a more alluring, grown-up and sophisticated take on things, in which trite adolescent angst is replaced with a kind of simmering existential despair. This is a vampire film which isn’t really about vampires, but more about the emotional strain of being an outsider in a superficial, self-destructive world. To paraphrase the Stones, this film starts from the premise that the audience will sympathise with the devil.
And it isn’t just the sensuality and the languid ennui that recalls Rice’s novels. Anyone who’s read The Vampire Lestat will be hard pressed not to smile at the notion of a reclusive vampire rock star. For all his musical talents, though, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has most in common with Rice’s tortured Louis: a tormented soul worn thin by years of watching humanity destroy the world in which they live. (I hasten to add that the film has no real connection to the books. I don’t want you to think that it’s some kind of adaptation, because it’s not: it’s a completely independent story that just has some stylistic similarities.)
Damning mankind as ‘zombies’ – blind, unthinking creatures – Adam nevertheless can’t resist the instruments and music they create; nor can he survive without his endearing human gopher Ian (Anton Yelchin). But time is running out for him. As the water supply becomes polluted beyond repair, and as that same contagion enters the human bloodstream, Adam finally loses all faith in the world around him. It is time, at last, to die. However, he has reckoned without his beloved Eve (Tilda Swinton), who travels halfway across the world from her adopted home in Morocco to convince him that there is still some beauty to be found in existence. Her arrival is the catalyst for a complete change in Adam’s lonely, isolated routine: first because she counters his emotional frailty with her own no-nonsense resilience to the world; but also because her coming paves the way for another, wilder and far more disruptive presence: that of her ‘little sister’, the immature and chaotic Eva (Mia Wasikowska).
This is the first Jarmusch film I’ve seen, so I don’t know his hallmarks as a director. He seems to be very fond of long, contemplative shots like the opening sequence, in which the camera circles dizzyingly above the reclining figures of Adam and Eve. Very quickly I learned that the key was simply to sit back and let the film wash over me, because generally speaking it moves at the speed of molasses.
There were two drawn-out sequences in particular that I felt would have benefitted from tighter editing. Eve’s solitary, slow-motion wandering through Moroccan streets was beautifully filmed, but continues past the saturation point; and the long scene with the Lebanese singer at the end feels completely unnecessary since it turns out to have no bearing on the plot. However, on the other side of the scales you have scenes which spark with unexpectedly dry humour; and sometimes the film bubbles with an almost undergraduate glee at its own cleverness. That’s the right word for it, actually: undergraduate; and I don’t mean that in a remotely derogatory sense. What I mean is that it encapsulates that kind of highly literate smartness which is lightened by a subversive kind of humour. It has jokes about Byron and Schubert and even offers its own theory on Christopher Marlowe’s supposed authorship of the works of Shakespeare, which amused me greatly. And the arrival of Eva (Wasikowska) prompts another key change: she seems to have wandered in from a completely different production, Buffy perhaps, and her interaction with Adam is a sheer joy to watch as their two very different notions of vampiric existence clash with one another.
The cast are delightful. Tilda Swinton still looks preternaturally youthful and luminous (what is her secret? Is she actually immortal?) and she and Hiddleston make a gorgeous leading couple who seem genuinely at ease with one another. The balance of the relationship is charmingly skewed so that, for all Eve’s slightly maternal indulgence of Adam (she is the older of the two), she’s also the one who is most open to change and adaptation. When they speak on the phone, Eve is the one using a sleek iPhone, while Adam wrestles with a primitive ancient TV and a confusing mass of cables, fighting against the inevitability of progress. Quite frankly, they are both beautiful; and I feel it’s my duty to warn those of an excitable disposition that Hiddleston does spend a fair amount of the film shirtless and occasionally loses even more clothes. For my sins, I had two unbelievably inane women sitting behind me, who giggled like schoolgirls every time he was anything but fully dressed, which took up most of the film. Hard stares having failed, I was sorely tempted to swing round at the end and swat them both over the head with my Evening Standard.
Overall, it’s beautiful, dreamy and very cool. I suspect that my affection for it is more subjective than usual, but the reviews have been fantastic so it clearly isn’t just me. If you’re happy to watch a film which is more about mood than action (and which occasionally drags its heels slightly); or if you were also an Anne Rice fan back in the day, then I think you should give this a go (and then come back and share your thoughts, of course). I’m not sure I’ll end up getting it to keep on DVD, but it certainly made for a decadently satisfying couple of hours at the cinema; and I’m pleased to see that angst-ridden vampires are once again getting their moment in the sun. Metaphorically speaking.