Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t a vampire movie in the traditional sense. It hemorrhages introspection and indie sensibility rather than blood and guts. If I were the kind of writer who used bad puns, I might say it lacks bite. But it doesn’t suck.
The action – and I use the word in the loosest possible sense – is split between Tangier, home of Tilda Swinton’s bohemian intellectual Eve, and the abandoned, decaying ghost-town of Detroit, where Tom Hiddleston’s jaded rocker Adam resides.
They are members of an undead elite, which has wielded a silent influence over the greatest artistic and scientific achievements of the last millenia, although they don’t like to make a fuss about it. Adam once penned an adagio for Schubert and the curmudgeonly old Christopher Marlowe, another member of their coven, is still hacked off at Shakespeare for getting the credit for his work. These days Adam lives in a crumbling tenement building, recording rock ‘n’ roll funeral dirges, with only his back-combed hair for company.
He’s in bad shape – ready to give up the ghost, or at least the vampire. Thankfully his very, very old flame Eve picks up on his existential angst and hops on the first night-flight Stateside.
If it sounds a tad pretentious, that’s because it is, but it’s also very pretty. Director Jim Jarmusch paints with a murky palette of grey, umber and burgundy – both the rotting post-industrial cityscapes and claustrophobic Moroccan alleys have a wistful, vacant beauty. The aesthetic is unabashedly neo-gothic, with the undead characters displaying a stereotypical predilection for vintage robes and gilded hardback novels.
Thematically, Only Lovers offers nothing groundbreaking – the vampire-as-rockstar was imagined by Anne Rice in 1976’s Interview with the Vampire, and the idea of a global sect of artists and scientists communing echelons above the hoi polloi is a furrow well ploughed in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The parallel between vampires and drug addicts isn’t exactly new, either; Jarmusch underlines it a few times for good measure, with the act of drinking blood – out of gothic goblets, of course – soliciting dilated pupils, rolled-back eyes and moans of heroin-esque ecstasy. Even the sourcing of good, clean “O-negative” from hospital blood banks (“we can hardly throw bodies in the Thames with the tuberculosis floaters these days, can we?”) has been done before.
But rather than collapse into self-parody, the adherence to clearly signposted vampire motifs allows Jarmusch to focus on grander ideas. The languid approach that’s characterised his filmmaking career – from Broken Flowers to Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai to the taciturn Coffee and Cigarettes – puts the dialogue front and centre, and the blood-sucking element becomes a vehicle to explore the futility of life and the alienation that comes with age.
Swinton is astutely cast – her ethereal looks and mantis-like frame make for a fine vampire, and Hiddleston’s intelligent eyes and thespy delivery are perfect for the detached, maudlin Adam. Together they provide enough chemistry to pull you through the film’s more self-indulgent moments. Only the normally-excellent Mia Wasikowska disappoints, with a rather hackneyed turn as Eve’s spoiled, sybaritic younger sibling.
Occasionally Jarmusch spreads it on a bit thick – the fetishisation of analogue technology, for example, brought to mind the vomitorious scene from Seeking a Friend For the End of the World in which Keira Knightley riffs about her parents’ vintage record player. But there’s a knowingness with Only Lovers, a sense that we’re all in on the joke, usually signified by Hiddleston’s slightly arched eyebrow.
Like most of Jarmusch’s work, his latest film will polarise opinion. It’s slow and weighed down somewhat by a sense of its own importance, but a wicked sense of humour simmers beneath the surface. It’s unlikely to win Jarmusch many new fans but those who appreciate his lethargic pacing and pensive disposition will find a lot to like.
First published in City A.M.