ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013, directed by Jim Jarmusch, 123 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Adam and Eve, as played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, channel a sweet strain of sublime melancholy as the aging couple in director Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. To describe this beautiful pair as an aging couple is not quite right; actually as vampires their bodies aren’t aging at all but together they possess a world-weariness born of observing centuries of man’s foolhardy ways. The two exist in a beautiful stasis, a state that Jarmusch milks for his most effective film in years.
It’s easy to imagine this film being personal for Jarmusch because one can envision the day-to-day life — or, for a nocturnal creature such as himself, night-to-night life — of a successful artist like himself as vampiric. Switch out the supernatural subtext and you have a personal allegory. Hiddleston’s Adam lives alone, submerged in a life of leisure in his run-down Detroit home, a brick oasis that is the last building standing on the block. Adam is a reclusive one-time rock star who fumbles around his house in a robe, forever tinkering with his music with a tangle of classic guitars and stacks of vintage analogue gear. His main connection with modern life comes via his mousy pal Ian (Anton Yelchin, Chekov from the Star Trek reboot) who runs errands like procuring rare guitars for him (in Jarmusch’s life this person would probably be called Intern instead of Ian, but I digress). Adam is a cagey guy whose emotional state is hard to read so when he asks Ian if he could find someone to craft a gun shell with a wooden bullet we see reason to worry.
The morose Adam finally reaches out to Eve, his true love who is living currently in Morocco and enjoying the friendship of the undead playwright Christopher Marlowe (a regal John Hurt) who really did write all of Shakespeare’s plays. Eve drops everything to come to Adam’s side where they muse endlessly about all that they have seen through the centuries. The pair make for a wonderful couple. Eve exudes a knowing acceptance of the world and its follies that seems to make her stronger where Adam is beleaguered by an existential malaise that Eve blames on his years hanging out with “Byron and Shelley, and all those French assholes.” As for blood-drinking mayhem, Adam and Eve don’t spend time stalking the living (whom they refer to dismissively as “zombies”) and instead have very dignified exchanges with the medical personnel at the back door of the local hospital. Only when Eve’s loose cannon sister Ava arrives (Mia Wasikowska) are Adam and Eve thrust back into uncivilized behavior.
This is the 11th fictional feature Jarmusch has made since his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation, and all of his films share a certain muted comedic tone. At his worst, Jarmusch can seem affected and emotionally inert but here he seems to have channeled a world-weary melancholy, adrift in the dilapidated ruins of Detroit and yearning for the years when American culture was on an optimistic upswing. Although Adam has lived centuries, it is the 1950s and ’60s that haunt him the most (the time of Jarmusch’s youth) and the music he creates is a distillation of My Bloody Valentine’s noise and The Velvet Underground’s narcotic drone.
Luckily, Adam’s mopey langor is counterbalanced by Swinton’s full-blooded performance as Eve. She has taken the wisdom she has collected and forged an inner-peace with it. She has a joy that Adam lacks and her acceptance has even given her intuitive powers Adam is missing. Amongst all this artifice their relationship seems very real, like something you might imagine between Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. And just before things get too dully domestic their vampiric nature begins to call, but what’s romance without a little adversity? With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has embraced the world of fantasy in a bear hug and yet through the vampire myth he has created his most believable, recognizable and heart-felt characters yet. I guess it’s never to late to remove the stake from your heart.