What is there to say about vampires that hasn’t already been said? The pop culture landscape has been flooded with vampires in recent years, though that trend seems to be waning right now. Between the end of the Twilight franchise and oversaturation with the undead in general, it seems like mainstream entertainment has given up on finding new ways to wring money out of fictional bloodsuckers.
And then we have Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire film starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, written and directed by arthouse veteran Jim Jarmusch.
Right from the opening shot, this film caught me off guard. The film opens with a spinning record, which establishes retro technology and music as prominent motifs of the film right at the outset. And then we cut to overhead shots of our two leads (Hiddleston and Swinton, playing vampire lovers named Adam and Eve because why the hell not?). While the camera is still spinning. The effect was like getting blindfolded and spun around in circles: I was so thoroughly discombobulated that I was ready to take the film on its own bizarre terms. This was a very good move on the part of Jarmusch.
You see, this film needs such a strong hook because it has no plot. None. Zip. Nada. The film introduces a special vampire-killing wooden bullet in its opening minutes and it never gets used, for God’s sake. This whole film is just a few days in the life of a vampire couple, as they do things that they’ve been doing for centuries and take part in some events that are assuredly nowhere near as crazy as what they’ve already been through. The plot rambles without any semblance of structure, the entire story is treated like it takes place in medias res, and there are at least three montages thrown in to pad out the run time.
Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
It was difficult watching this movie at first, but only because Adam and Eve are on opposite ends of the globe when we open. Through every moment they share onscreen (which is pretty much the whole movie from half an hour onward), Hiddleston and Swinton are simply mesmerizing to watch. The closest comparison I can make to them is Gomez and Morticia Addams: Adam and Eve have the same kind of deadpan macabre humor and the same bottomless mutual love without condition. These two are an island of blissful weirdness and gallows humor without a single care for the outside world. The difference, of course, is that Adam and Eve are quite clearly and explicitly immortal creatures of the night.
Of course, there’s a fair bit of drama to go with the comedy. We see from the outset that Adam is the textbook definition of a tortured artist, so overcome with ennui and disgust for the human race that he’s become a recluse on the outskirts of Detroit. Adam is a musician, composing songs on gorgeous vintage instruments and recording on jerry-rigged analog equipment. His instruments are procured by way of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a strange fellow in the underground music circuit with enough connections to obtain the rarest of objects. And speaking of Adam’s mortal assistants, he does occasionally go out disguised as a doctor to visit a local hospital. There, he bribes Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) to keep his blood supply stocked.
By comparison, Eve is nowhere near as depressed. She’s travelling the world, revelling in the chaos and festivities of the human world, though she seems especially fond of Tangier. There, she meets regularly to share blood supplies with another vampire, played by John Hurt. And this vampire is Christopher freaking Marlowe.
A recurring joke in this film concerns the vampires and their effect on history. Adam, for example, apparently gave Schubert a string adagio, met with Mary Wollstonecraft and Lord Byron, and learned forgotten electrical engineering secrets from Nikola Tesla. And Christopher Marlowe? Well, he laments that he hadn’t met Adam when he wrote Hamlet.
(Side note: Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and a talented poet in his own right. Marlowe is a popular candidate for “the true Shakespeare” among skeptics, though Marlowe died under unusual circumstances in 1593 before a single play had been published in Shakespeare’s name. Which means that for Marlowe to be Shakespeare, he would have had to fake his death, continue writing plays, and let someone else take the credit, all for unknown reasons. Basically, it’s a scenario that could only make sense if Marlowe was indeed a vampire.)
Getting back to Adam and Eve, it bears remembering that the film opens with a vampire-killing bullet and there’s frequent mention of contaminated blood. Though vampires can live a very long time, there’s a very clear implication that they can die. And that might seem like a remote possibility, until you remember that one of them is depressed and bored to the point of suicide. Eve doesn’t want to lose her husband, and that provides for some great drama as she tries to bring some joie de vivre back into his life.
Then Ava comes in and provides too much.
Ava (Mia Wasikowska) is Eve’s little sister. Kinda sorta. The film is rather vague on this point. Suffice to say that the phrase “blood relations” is nowhere near as simple in this context. Anyway, the important thing is that Ava is a much younger vampire. The experience of being undead is still relatively new to her, so she doesn’t have any of the ennui that Adam and Eve carry around. Unfortunately, it also means that she doesn’t have the caution, experience, or common sense of her older siblings. She goes out and gets wild, Adam and Eve try to keep her in check, hilarity ensues.
I was rather surprised by how much comedy is in this movie. Ava, Ian, and Dr. Watson all provide fine moments of comic relief (though Watson only gets two scenes in total), and there are plenty of whip-smart exchanges between Adam and Eve. Yet the jokes on display are pretty much all of the pitch-black variety (“My mouth tastes awful.” “What did you expect? He’s in the music industry!”).
One of the film’s more darkly ironic points is in how the vampires refer to humans as “zombies.” The comparison is nothing new; part of what makes zombies such an enduring part of our collective subconscious is how they comment on our more primal and brainless tendencies. But when we’re being called “zombies” by undead bloodsuckers… well, I don’t know whether to call that a third-degree burn or the pot calling the kettle black.
The characters also wring some thematic depth out of Detroit itself. The film calls very specific attention to theaters and car factories in Detroit that are now merely hollowed-out wrecks. A once-vibrant city full of buildings that were once beautiful, now existing as a shadow of its former self. It’s a very novel and poignant extension of the vampire concept.
Though the actors all play their parts beautifully, it’s Hiddleston and Swinton who of course anchor the show. Adam and Eve both needed an unearthly kind of beauty, so it should go without saying that Loki and the White Witch of Narnia were perfect fits for their roles. These vampires are sexy without being sexual, though it helps that the two are so adorably in love with each other that they have no desire to seduce anyone else. I really can’t lay enough praise on these two actors and the incredible chemistry between them.
(Side note: I understand that Michael Fassbender was initially cast as the male lead, but got replaced by Hiddleston at the last minute. Nothing against Fassbender, he’s a tremendous actor and I haven’t seen him give a bad performance yet, but this recasting was totally the right move. I can’t possibly imagine anyone else playing these two leads except for Hiddleston and Swinton.)
As for technical notes, it should go without saying that this film was shot almost entirely after dark. Yet we also have a few scenes taking place in hospitals, airplane cabins, etc. This makes for a very interesting contrast between sterile, fluorescent lit environments and grungy nighttime environments. Nicely done.
Far more importantly, we have the soundtrack. The score was composed by Jozef van Wissem, who’s collaborated with Jarmusch on many projects in the past. van Wissem is primarily known as a professional lute player, which explains why the score features all manner of string instruments being played with varying levels of amplification and alteration. But what really makes this score intriguing is that van Wissem quite clearly composed Adam’s music as well. This means that they share a very similar style, almost as if Adam was writing the score to his own movie. It’s a fascinating thought, in execution.
Only Lovers Left Alive is poorly-paced and padded to the gills, with a plot so rambling it might as well not exist, and I’m sure that will be enough to put off some moviegoers. Yet the performances and characters are very engrossing, the visuals are wonderful, and the score is nicely haunting. Between the film’s pitch-black deadpan humor, its poignant core romance, and its subtle intelligence, I found more than enough to keep me entertained for two hours.
As a piece of cinematic art and a rare vampire film that’s worth a damn, I will gladly give this film a recommendation.