Only Lovers Left Alive

April 26, 2014
Tilda Swinton in 'Only Lovers Left Alive' (2013)
Tilda Swinton in 'Only Lovers Left Alive' (2013)

Last time we saw Tilda Swinton on screen, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, she was playing a corpse. In Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, she is a vampire. This may be considered a form of progress.

Since the days of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) there have been thousands of vampire films made in every corner of the world. Despite the best efforts of Hammer Studios, few movies have rivalled those early prototypes when it comes to atmosphere and originality.

As a director who began his career as a dedicated cinephile, Jarmusch has drawn on Nosferatu for visual inspiration, while producing one of the most offbeat vampire flicks of all time. If this sounds irresistable, a warning is in order: Only Lovers Left Alive is one of those strange films that may be best appreciated before and after leaving the cinema. The two hours in between are more problematic.

As a filmmaker, Jarmusch is terminally cool. No matter what happens in his movies every character seems to be fully occupied simply keeping boredom at bay. The vampire theme has exacerbated these tendencies, as it allows for two beings who are effectively immortal, meaning they have had all the time in the world to try everything, go everywhere, and grow thoroughly jaded.

The title is borrowed from a 1964 science fiction novel by Dave Wallis, in which teenagers rule the world after the adults have committed suicide. The book enjoyed a brief celebrity when it seemed as if the Rolling Stones and Nicholas Ray were going to make it into a film, but nothing happened. Nowadays it is the very definition of a cult novel. Jarmusch has borrowed the title and dedicated the film to the Wallis book, but there is no other connection.

Neither is there any connection with the cheap thrills and gore associated with conventional horror movies. Jarmusch’s protagonists, Adam and Eve, are two sophisticated vampires based in different cities. Eve is in Tangiers, once home to famous junkies like William S. Burroughs, but she prefers to hang out with Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who is himself a vampire. Her husband, Adam, has settled into a gloomy mansion in the suburbs of Detroit, a city struggling to maintain a pulse. Their contrasting personalities are allegedly based on a story by Mark Twain called The Diary of Adam and Eve.

Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, who looks like a forgotten member of the Ramones, is an obsessive musician who has adapted his style over the ages. Having once knocked off an Adagio for Schubert he is now making dirge-like experimental guitar music. He has a disciple in rock groupie, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who finds him vintage guitars and runs other errands. Feeling fed up with the limited world of humans, whom he refers to as “zombies” – the walking dead – Adam contemplates suicide.

Sensing his depression over the phone, Eve makes a mercy dash to Detroit. The lovers are reunited and their age-old bonds reaffirmed. They eat blood popsicles, dance to old records and take long, nocturnal drives around the city. This romantic interlude is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Eve’s little sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who has remained an impulsive, uncontrollable teenager.

It’s one of Jarmusch’s gags that Ava can be hundreds of years old, but has never actually grown up. Adam, by contrast, has acquired immense scientific knowledge and wealth. He has hung out with Byron and Shelley, and a host of famous scientists and composers. He is cynical and world-weary, energised only by his passion for Eve.

There is not much of a story here, more a series of cute ideas that play on the vampire motif. The first discovery is that these vampires get their supplies from the blood bank by bribing doctors. The practise of biting someone in the neck is “so fifteenth century” it is dismissed with a sneer. They imbibe the vital fluid in small crystal glasses, as if it were a rare dessert wine. Having drained a glass, their eyes roll back in ecstasy, like junkies who have just shot up.

It’s amusing to reflect on this portrait of two erudite vampires who act like drug addicts and wine connoisseurs. The deceptive aspect is that we are led to believe this is a film about vampires when it is really the tale of a love affair that has lasted hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Stoned on “the good stuff” they get from the blood bank, stoned on each other, Adam and Eve have forged a romance that defies the ages. I have a terrible suspicion this introverted relationship will also defy the patience of all but the most die-hard Jarmusch fans.

Only Lovers Left Alive
UK/Germany, rated M
122 mins
Written & directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26 April, 2014.