By Kristin Battestella
Though hampered in finding audiences by a limited box office season, writer, director, and independent film stalwart Jim Jarmusch's (Broken Flowers, Night on Earth, Mystery Train) 2013 vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive remains a witty, impressive, thought provoking commentary long after the viewing ends.
Vampire and depressed musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has had it with humanity and our so-called zombie apathy and finds it increasingly difficult to make music in the once glorious but now downtrodden Detroit. His perpetual lady love Eve (Tilda Swinton), however, adores Tangier and enjoys her blood procuring visits with the long thought dead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) – the true author of Shakespeare's works. Eve makes the long trip to see Adam, but their rekindled romance is threatened when Eve's disruptive sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives from “zombie central” Los Angeles. The young and reckless Ava takes a liking to Adam's lone human friend Ian (Anton Yelchin) and soon endangers their O Negative supply line from local Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). Will the lovers survive?
Not Your Mama's Vamps
Last fall, I wrote a mini capsule review of Only Lovers Left Alive for one of my annual vampire film lists. At the time, my primary concern was that this was a refreshingly unconventional film and that it would not be for everyone expecting more mainstream designs. Next, I feared the picture wasn't as good as I thought it was when I first saw it – would such offbeat hold up upon repeat viewings? However, I've found myself near addicted to Only Lovers Left Alive in the months since. Instead of predicating my praise with a 'not for everyone' label, my vantage has grown to the notion that everyone should give this picture a chance. Forget Twilight. I am so sick of any vampire film, book, and television material being compared to it when, despite its millions,Twilight is only one very small, divisive, largely inaccurate reflection of the genre and its longtime audiences. Only Lovers Left Alive, by contrast, is the 21st century bar by which vampire pictures should be measured. This is everything I have ever wanted in a vampire movie yet it is unlike any other vampy film before it. The intercut beginning – who is who, what’s happening, why they live apart – will confuse some audiences accustomed to straightforward, spoon-fed explanations. Fortunately, these parallels reflect the similar but different existence of our detached but no less connected lovers and infers their own Einstein discussions. Ironically, the leads don't talk to each other until half hour into the picture when their vampiric nature is revealed with a ritualistic, sex scene-esque, ecstatic, blood drinking high. Some accept or revel in this shoot up tea time necessity while others begrudge and seem ashamed of it. The euphoria is over so fast – they can schedule it or travel a few nights without blood, but this required fix takes on dangerous withdrawals when one is on the run and down to a precious last drop.
Though perhaps obvious, the addiction subtext in Only Lovers Left Alive is one of many genre layers amid the witty, sardonic script and quotable ensemble banter. Certainly there are spooky, atmospheric, noir moments, yet the subtle, chuckle inducing black comedy accents toy with the social statements, bleak palette, and melancholy analysis in the truest sense of the phrase. Yes, what date of birth do you give when scheduling that night flight? Numerous names, languages, references, history, and literary allusions will take more than one viewing to register, and you can learn something new every time you watch Only Lovers Left Alive. Granted, that may not be the intention of the contemporary, multitasking, desensitized viewer, but this impressive depth and mental stimulation deserves your undivided attention. These vampires were probably there to give plants and animals their Latin names and scoff at how the antiquated grid technology hasn't caught up to the new millennium. What else did they have to do for so many centuries but read up on Tesla or quantum theory? They influence art, advance science, and accumulate knowledge while humanity ignores our spark and degrades into the mundane – understandably, it must suck to pin all that worth on the mad dash to find uncontaminated blood! Despite their seeming superiority, our couple will always be in hiding, on the lamb, under the radar, and avoiding the police. Sooner or later their predatory nature must surface and they will find a way to survive.
At first, the always ethereal Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) seems more like a Tolkien elf than a vampire thanks to her striking white hair, light clothing, and Old World happiness as she takes a solo evening stroll through Tangier. Clearly strong, Eve seems effortless, curious, intuitive, and almost childlike ala the hissing swan inspiration from The Bride of Frankenstein yet also aged and advanced in her sense of wonder. How many of the great literary scandals has she witnessed first hand! She touches books delicately, imprinting their tales with a tactile osmosis and vampiric speed reading before wearing gloves to protect this intimate touch during her journey. Eve is a progressive vampire with plenty of credit cards, passports, and a smartphone, yet waits in her lover's foyer as if the removal of said gloves is an old fashioned, sensuous calling card. Traveling is such a drag, but they talk long distance on schedule and Eve's handled Adam's periodic brooding previously. She comes to him without outrightly being asked, dances to the music he makes, and remains in tune yin to yang despite their separation. This couple would seem mismatched – her bright contentment to his bleak depressing – yet these primal, protective mates for life are wonderfully kinetic be it a continent or inches between them. Dark garments and red accents do intrude on Eve's white as Only Lovers Left Alive gets heavy, however. She wears his robe, feels at ease within his dreary sheets, but as the desperation mounts the sophisticated layers peel away, reverting to an older, fierce instinct. Eve says she is a survivor, and we believe it when she drinks the O Negative first, keeps the flask in her pocket, puts the blood on a stick in the fridge, or wins at chess. She says, “Give me all your money baby,” and Adam gives it!
I confess, I’m behind on the Tom Hiddleston hysteria but became a fan because of Only Lovers Left Alive. Initially, I could see the originally cast as Adam Michael Fassbender in the early lone rocker scenes, but if Fassbender did The Counselor instead of Only Lovers Left Alive, he made a rare mistake. Now, I don’t think anyone but Hiddleston could have played Adam, and it's a pity so many may only know him as Loki in Thor and The Avengers. From naming his male guitar after “just some old 17th century English guy” and seeing long dead star Eddie Cochran “yeah, on Youtube” to his modified electric car, antique stethoscope, a perpetually out of order bathroom, and the need for an elusive wooden bullet – there's more to Adam than meets the eye. His clutter and technological work indicate they have been apart for some time, and Adam seems to be an ongoing, moody, musical study in contradictions with an old boob tube and giant cordless antenna phone hooked up to his laptop and sophisticated music equipment. His music is brooding art with a beat, a melancholy but still ticking reflection laced with Byronic references. He dresses up as “Dr. Faust” to obtain his blood supply and balances his pouty with a surprisingly sardonic wit and chuckle-inducing deadpan irony. Adam claims mutual jeopardy makes him feel safer, that he doesn't have spare time to waste, and above all insists he doesn't have heroes – despite an entire wall adorned with such luminaries (I see that Hank Williams on the right coughISawtheLightcough). Sadly, he is right about our zombie monotony and people fearing our genius bringing us to ruin. These vampires have nothing to do with their lives but read, invent, and watch us piss away the gifts we are given. I’d be depressed, too! Adam was emo before emo was emo. If Eve thinks he is wasting his long life on self obsession, by comparison imagine how much time we are wasting in our compressed lifespan.
Friends and Foes
Adding to Only Lovers Left Alive's nostalgic charm is John Hurt (Alien) as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Christopher Marlowe. His Shakespeare possibilities create just enough past interest while his unknown aspects provide words of warning to Adam and Eve. Some audiences, however, may be upset by his unexplained health issues or find the Marlowe as Shakespeare suggestion unnecessary. Was Kit already too old when he became a vampire, presumably after he faked his historical death pre-Shakespeare? Has he already lived so long that his immortality is now a slowly degenerative condition? Who or what is Silmane Dazi's (This Path Ahead) Bilal to Marlowe? He knows both Eve and Adam and their secrets, but by all indications Adam has not been in Tangier for some time and Bilal doesn't appear to be a vampire himself. Is he merely a literary protege to Marlowe or something more, and how often do these kinds of short lived companions come and go? Of course, we'll never know Kit's whole story, and that's the point. Thankfully, his symbolic bad batch for the drug dealer twists create more angst in Only Lovers Left Alive, as does the perfectly juvenile and obnoxious Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) as Ava. Just when the picture may seem too slow, Eve's so-called sister enters half way through the two hour time – clearly uninvited as a reckless vampire who lives in the moment regardless of any delicate needs or peril. Adam says he never sees other vampires, yet they each dream of Ava before she arrives and resent her bratty jokes and childish vamp cliches. They can't forget whatever it was she did in Paris 87 years ago, (Oh if this were Highlander: The Series and we could have seen that!) and Ava comes between these would be parents, overstaying her welcome and causing precious blood to be spilled – literally and figuratively.
Though Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) as Ian isn't a bad kid for being in the music industry and seems grateful to genuinely help Adam, Ava uses Ian and makes an already fragile situation regarding Adam's music more suspicious. Why are teens showing up at Adam's house? He has released music anonymously, but how have Adam's tunes made it to the underground club scene and come back to him? Did Ian sell the material, defying his confidentiality agreement, or was it Ava somehow causing the musical stir? Ian wants to know more about Adam, tries to get him out of his reclusive ways, and unknowing emulates their vampire style – but he will never fully grasp the centuries in play and is easily lead and influenced by the next shiny lure. Again, perhaps the point is in not knowing how it all goes down, for Adam and Eve have previously given their achievements to others, left a place before they've stay too long, or fled from something worse. Despite her lack of discipline, Ava is right that a lone vampire has a much tougher existence. Are Adam and Eve really condescending snobs, vampires so far removed from what they are that they don't know how to get rid of a body? They think they are so above that 15th century barbarism and must obey that stop sign when a cop is driving by, but their gloves must come off eventually if they intend to live up to being the Only Lovers Left Alive. Fortunately, Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) adds a fun sense of spooky as the blood procuring Dr. Watson. His hospital lab is bright and high tech compared to the Detroit drab, and his Strangelove or Caligari banter suggests he may suspect what's really going on in this lucrative arrangement. Honestly, I wish Only Lovers Left Alive were a series so we could see more of this reluctant, looking over his shoulder but no less sardonic doctor and his speculations, “Cat's gotta be from Cleveland.”
Compared to a more expected in your face horror or heavy action spectacle, not much happens in Only Lovers Left Alive. However, there are numerous visual treats and symmetrical designs layering all that isn't said. The moody nighttime sky, slowly descending camera angles, and spinning records create a hypnotic start, and the dizzying round and round parallels the intoxicating romance and blood highs. The photography and camera framing feels intimate and humorous, contrasting the decaying humanity and quiet players. Secretive, melancholy blue tones and soft, exotic yellow hues distinguish locales or feelings while suggestive hints of red pop onscreen and fade to black slides imply something bad happening. Bright, white hospitals or airplanes mean the sunglasses wearing vamps are out of their comfort zone and in our tempting world. Though the coloring may seem too saturated or overly processed and the brief CGI super speed actions are too noticeable, the scheme feels deliberately dream like or off kilter in the distorted motions – they move too fast for us but time goes so slow for them. Piles of décor create a cool, aged feeling and psychedelic atmosphere along with great character unto themselves Detroit and Tangier locations, sweet records, excellent tunes, turntables, and carefree dancing. Thanks to some inventive yak hair wigs, these vampires aren’t pretty per se, but they look unusually beautiful and as ancient and worn as their collections of books, instruments, and accumulating pack rat lifestyles. Guitar enthusiasts will delight in the mix of classic and modern technology, as will Tesla fans and alternative energy theorists. Vampire inventors, who knew?
The unique vampire mythos in Only Lovers Left Alive will also alternatively delight and aggravate fans of the genre, as again, most of their vampire technicalities go unclarified and leave room for debate. How could they get their photo taken if they have no reflection? Eve says they looked so young in an 1868 third wedding picture, so do they age or don't they? Are their experiences and long lived souls reflected in their eyes, noticeable only to them? Are Eve's predictions on our fighting over water and the rise of new regions actually prophetic or is it merely thousands of years of seeing it all before? Why does Adam keep books in the refrigerator – space issues or are those rare volumes in need of climate control? Just imagine if more people kept books in the refrigerator instead of junk food. Sustenance for the mind, right? The mushrooms, what the heck is it about the mushrooms? I hate mushrooms! The blu-ray edition of Only Lovers Left Alive adds more deleted scenes and comedic moments with sunlight and mirrors, and these extra minutes could have remained in the film. Only Lovers Left Alive already makes its own rules and pace, and a hour length behind the scenes feature goes into more detail on the film's long gestation and attention to its narrative. Renovation admirers can also see before and after photos of Adam's Detroit abode online, now sold and restored to its former glory. Somehow, that just seems fitting.
An Audience Awaits
Somewhere I read a one sentence review that said the worst part of Only Lovers Left Alive is that it ended. Though appropriately Sopranos style, that finale may also upset some audiences. I myself had to rewind it two or three times upon my first viewing – just like my favorite part, the dance scene. Vampires are people, too, and Eve has come to make Adam live again. Are there plot holes and pretentious writing in the unexplained aspects at work here? Perhaps, but there is nothing so glaring to deter viewers – and plenty more enticing and intelligently structured designs make it easy to roll with Only Lovers Left Alive. I want to discuss this tale further, for I know I am forgetting to mention even more little treats – the music alone, hello! Instead of a mind numbing movie, Only Lovers Left Alive feels like a book continually giving a new puzzle piece with every viewing. Yes, the silent montages, heady atmosphere, and seemingly aimless, desolate Detroit style won’t be for everyone. It is correct to say nothing really occurs in Only Lovers Left Alive, and that will mean a big no thank you for much of today's audiences. I didn't get to see Only Lovers Left Alive in theaters thanks to its extremely limited run and distant festival appearances, and it saddens me that something like the Marvel pictures make billions while films like this go unseen with a blink and you miss it million dollar box office. Can't everyone have a piece of the cinema pie?
When I finally picked up the blu-ray edition of Only Lovers Left Alive and convinced my husband to sit down and watch, we ended up discussing it for weeks. In fact, we're still talking about the unanswered questions and intriguing possibilities of Only Lovers Left Alive long after it has ended. I was excited to see Poe, Twain, Keats, and Dickinson on Adam’s wall, and I want to know who all his other heroes are, too. I originally started writing vampire stories because I had to write what I wanted to read. Outside of the biggies like Anne Rice or Bram Stoker, there was little serious vampire fiction around forty years ago. Had Only Lovers Left Alive been there in my youth, perhaps I wouldn't have had to make up my own vampire tales. Maybe that isn't saying very much, but as a long time fan of the fanged genre, it is perhaps the highest compliment I can give. Only Lovers Left Alive stays with you that deeply. Fans of the cast, vamp pictures, indie films, and well honed cinema should educate themselves with Only Lovers Left Alive ASAP.