Only Lovers Left Alive

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Jim Jarmusch

Starring

Mia Wasikowska Tilda Swinton Tom Hiddleston

Anticipation.

Jarmusch’s superb previous, The Limits of Control, was sadly unloved..

Enjoyment.

Hilarious, bittersweet, nostalgic and philosophical. One of this amazing director’s finest achievements.

In Retrospect.

A great piece of art that is in thrall to great pieces of art.

The modern world is a strange and beautiful place in Jim Jarmusch’s melancholy vampire masterpiece.

Great art never dies and nor do vampires. Both, however, require special tending to make their passage through time a safe and prosperous one. Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch is a sublime celebration of art and artists which zeroes in on the concept of culture as a human necessity — indeed, its life-giving properties are deemed so vital that, alongside food and water, it is the only thing preventing us from pressing a .45 to our collective temple and bidding good night, Chicago.

Yet this delightful conjecture proposes a melancholy paradox, that there is in fact a innate reciprocal relationship between culture and humanity. Humans create art, then art consoles humans. The problems remains that art is finite and humans aren’t, so what happens when there’s no-one left standing to appreciate the sublime masterworks forged by those great poets of antiquity? Buster Keaton? Neil Young? Rodney Dangerfield?

We join Adam (Tom Hiddleston) at a point where that very quandary is front and centre in his mind. He’s a lank-haired, elegantly wasted gothic mope living alone in a semi-dilapidated Detroit townhouse which heaves with vinyl records, vintage recording paraphernalia and antique musical instruments. Adam is a rock ’n’ roll vampire who, having lived and loved through the modern age and buddied-up with the likes of Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft, has just about had his fill of the creative bounties the world has to offer.

He has placed an order for a single hardwood bullet so a quick and easy escape is available to him. He takes a video call from Tangier. It’s Eve (Tilda Swinton), his white banshee, his darling, his true love. She sees his utter desolation through her iPhone screen and so hops on a night flight (the little-known carrier, Lumière Airlines) in order to instil in him once more with the joys of existence.

And this, essentially, is the film, a wistful romantic comedy in which a pair of vampires wax Brechtian about the good times. Often it feels truly affirmative and joyous, such as the when the pair laze about listening to old Southern soul platters, sucking on blood popsicles and rhubarbing about a time when fresh corpses clogged up the River Thames.

Adam and Eve are not evil, murderous vampires consumed by the their lust for blood (even though its presence does still provoke a certain antsiness). Their sustenance comes via crooked professionals who skim hospital transfusion supplies. Although the timeworn criterion of their survival are similar, Adam and Eve exist somewhere between the sexually voracious likes of Count Dracula and the angular, anxiety prone fops of the Twilight movies.

The register of this film is predominantly funny and flip, and if Swinton and Hiddleston were not actors previously known for their comic chops, they will be now. Hiddleston delivers every line laced with a perfectly mixed cocktail of spite and exasperation, betraying a sense of extreme self-consciousness and expansive worldly experience. His barely-disguised malice, huffy sense of entitlement and potential psychosis recall Holden Caulfield, only this time the “phonies” are now the “zombies”. Yet his agitation is born of a deep sadness: who will enjoy all this incredible art when everyone’s dead?

Adam and Eve avoid murder wherever possible, though they both sense that they are living in the end times. The film’s apocalyptic tone is articulated via night drives around a desolate Detroit, a broken city lit only by the moonbeams. Amid this urban wilderness stands a single beacon of hope: Little Jack White’s house. Adam has started to anonymously record post-rock guitar dirges (care of the film’s musical supervisor and long-time Jarmusch collaborator, Jozef van Wissem). Perhaps he thinks that there are no good bands out there at the moment, and thus isn’t being given a convincing motive to want to extend his own lifeline any further.

One sequence sees Adam rebooting his secret underfloor generator during a power outage, revealing a self-sustaining contraption based on the theories of 19th-century electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. While “the fucking zombies” persist with their community energy grid and the meshes of tangled cables that litter the landscape, Adam has personally preserved the ideas of a man who was, in his day, dismissed as a crackpot. In the same way, there are those who may cast aside Only Lovers Left Alive as an eccentric trifle created by a wanton iconoclast, just as they did Dead Man, just as they did The Limits of Control. But like Tesla, it only takes memory, creativity and little perspective to prove the world wrong.

Taking Adam and Eve as a duel mouthpiece for Jarmusch’s own conflicting and intense feelings, the eventual message the film delivers is that great art is there and is plentiful for those who are ready to be receptive to it. The problem is, maybe there aren’t that many people who can see what’s right at the end of their nose. At a low ebb and back in Tangier following a violent altercation with Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a piece of flakey LA jet trash who pays Adam and her big sis Eve a flying visit, the pair find momentary salvation in an antique lute and a virtuosic musical performance at a dive bar. Aside from its fleeting pleasure, it furnishes the pair with a reason to muddle on.

Published 20 Feb 2014

Tags: Jim Jarmusch Tilda Swinton Tom Hiddleston

Anticipation.

Jarmusch’s superb previous, The Limits of Control, was sadly unloved..

Enjoyment.

Hilarious, bittersweet, nostalgic and philosophical. One of this amazing director’s finest achievements.

In Retrospect.

A great piece of art that is in thrall to great pieces of art.

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