Just as he did with the Samurai genre in 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, writer/director Jim Jarmusch now gives us an entirely different perspective on the vampire movie. A sparkling script and charismatic cast injects a new burst of life into a genre that’s become pallid and toothless thanks to blood-sucking franchises and adolescent fantasies and, together with Neil Marshall’s recent Byzantium, resurrects the vampire as an entirely adult anti-hero.
As in Only Lovers Left Alive deals with the trials and tribulations of being undead in the modern age. Ancient, married vamps Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are complete polar opposites. Eve is upbeat and optimistic; living in sun-bleached Tangiers she dresses almost entirely in white and finds endless joy in her vast library of books. Holed up in the decaying suburbs of Detroit—America’s flatlining city—Adam is a morose figure dressed entirely in black. Immortality having lost its appeal, and even his beloved music failing to be a comfort, Adam’s thoughts turn ever darker; realising her husband’s fractured state, Eve travels to comfort him. The arrival of Eve’s wayward, hedonistic sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), however, is the cause of yet more drama.
As with most of Jarmusch’s characters, the joy of Adam and Eve is that they are deliciously at odds with the society in which they live, but have created a hermetically sealed universe which works perfectly for them. There’s fun to be had watching them interact with the outside world; a sequence in a nightclub, which sees them tucked away in a corner in sunglasses and gloves, is awkwardly amusing. But it’s when they are interacting in the relaxed environment of home that the chemistry between them becomes clear; they are an absolutely perfect pair and, as such, utterly beguiling to watch.
There are neat little touches of whimsy and visual flourishes throughout; these vamps don’t feast on humans—to survive in the 21st Century means to ensure your food supply is disease-free—so deal in black market blood procured from hospitals which, at one point, Eve fashions into ice lollies. There’s a great many spinning motifs—of the camera above characters, of records on a turntable—alluding to the fact that Adam and Eve are the unmoving centre of a world that has been changing around them for hundreds of years. And that these vamps refer to humans as ‘zombies’, those who lumber through life unseeing, is a neat nod to the ‘man as monster’ horror trope, even if it is somewhat overused.
While Only Lovers could easily be described as a comedy, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t drift into darker territory. Adam’s only ‘zombie’ friend Ian (Anton Yelchin), for example, makes the grim discovery that Ava is not as adept as her sister at supressing her animal instincts. For the most part, however, the film retains a light and breezy tone; less a story about vampires and more a great romance, of a love that has endured for centuries and that holds strong against the worst that humanity can bring.
As befitting this epic romance, Only Lovers looks exquisite. Shooting mostly at night, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captures both the mysticism of Tangiers and the mouldering streets of Detroit; a reflection of the Ying and Yang nature of Adam and Eve’s relationship. Similarly, production designer Marco Bittner Rosser has created a work of art in Adam’s sprawling home; it’s stuffed full of ephemera from the ages (including a wall of dead-pan photos of vampire friends which includes the likes of Buster Keaton and Oscar Wilde; the implication being that vamps have the best creative minds). The costumes and make-up are equally as on the nose; Swinton’s flowing white hair and pale skin and Adam’s shaggy mane and dark clothes—including a prized 15th century waistcoat—being both at odds and entirely complementary.
A film to beguile, Only Lovers brings together the very best elements of cinema—sparkling script, exceptional performances, stunning visuals, oh-so-perfect soundtrack—under the skilled eye of Jarmusch, a filmmaker with unique vision. Even though it may seem more style than substance, at its heart there lies an expertly crafted metaphor about the need to keep focused on the future, and the strength of true love to conquer all.
UK Release Date: February 21, 2014