Closing the New Zealand International Film Festival, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire elegy leaves an impression.
Jim Jarmusch and vampires! Given my penchant for both these factors, this latest offering from the godfather of American independent cinema would seem perfectly calibrated to satisfy my cinematic appetite. Jarmusch’s first film in four years, Only Lovers Left Alive, is an amalgam of personal fibres threaded through a glossy core of aloof coolness; this film is definitely growing on me.
Ostensibly composed almost entirely of its (admittedly very pretty) surface, at first glance Only Lovers Left Alive presents as a fun if simplistic subversion of the recently overexposed vampire film (sub)genre. Eschewing the bloodthirstiness or more recent melodramatics of other such genre fare, the film zooms in on the idea of an ageless perspective of history, creativity, and love. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (current Jarmusch muse Tilda Swinton) are, at least in an obvious sense, the titular Lovers. A married couple who live apart for years at a time, the film opens with each on opposite sides of the world and in seemingly opposite headspaces. We find Hiddleston’s introspective Adam mopey and lamenting—mirroring the faded bustle of his abandoned Detroit neighbourhood—as he focuses his attention on creating his music. Though maintaining a steady emotional keel herself, Swinton’s Eve is positively chipper in comparison, keeping up with friends and reading alike in her beautiful, highly photographic Tangiers (old city) locale. Sensing Adam’s dangerous dip into depression, Eve decides it high time they spend some time together and orchestrates the necessarily fiddly series of night journeys to cross the Atlantic to Adam’s home.
The film is made up mostly of lounging reflections on the state of humanity, touching on various high and lowlights of human history with Adam providing the pessimistic voice and Eve the more sanguine, though tempered by a realism that time and experience brings. It seems that Adam is the more highly strung creative part of the couple and Eve the more stable and centred component. Bear in mind that these assessments are necessarily strung out across a lengthy temporal scape and hence enable performances restrained enough to fit into Jarmusch’s trademark emotionally low burn aesthetic. It is in this historical observance and commentary that film also, at times, seems its weakest; dealing at a relatively surface level of name-drop novelty. But the insinuation is that the characters have been here before, several times, and will be again if they can adapt to humanity’s unwitting degradation of its blood supply (the harmful effects of ‘impure blood’ are also touched upon in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s recent take on the vampire genre in novel-turned-film, Let the Right One In). This long cycle rhythmic pattern that Adam and Eve, and indeed human history, fall into amounts to a Karresque “the more things change, the more they stay the same” philosophy. Structurally, this pattern also serves to connect Only Lovers Left Alive with Jarmusch’s previous The Limits of Control (2009), which is driven by similar structural and narrative cycles. The filmmaker engages in some clever layering as seen in the fact that Adam, who shows marked reticence at putting creative works, or perhaps more so the creative persona, into the public way—remarking near the film’s conclusion that an exemplary young singer they see in a Tangiers’ cafe is “too good” for fame—is in ways a directorial proxy. ‘His’ compositions are, in actuality, partially Jarmusch’s. That is, by way of the filmmaker’s current musical trio SQÜRL, credited as “composer: additional music” and also his recent collaborative works with Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem whom scored the film.
Despite the age difference, Hiddleston and Swinton have great onscreen chemistry and provide a very believable and enjoyable romantic centre to the film, even if the odd patch of dialogue comes off as unnaturally delivered. Fellow Jarmusch returnee John Hurt brings innate presence as every literature snob’s hard done-by Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe: friend to Eve and having an ill-defined mentor-mentee relationship with Adam. Anton Yelchin is excellent if barely recognisable as Adam’s kind of rock‘n’roll ‘familiar’ Ian, procurer of rare guitars and curiosities, in awe of his genius ‘friend’. Rounding out the cast is Mia Wasikowska, painting an odd stripe as Eve’s troublesome younger sister Ava who arrives, causes a stir, and then departs.
Ultimately, if this all adds up to very little dramatic or thematic weight—and I’m not convinced it does—the purely aesthetic pleasures of the film are undeniable. As expertly shot and lit (through cinematographer Yorick Le Saux) as you’d expect from Jarmusch—be it night sequences driving the empty streets of Detroit, walking the moonlit narrow cobbled paths of Tangiers, or lounging in various apartments taking exquisitely lingering mouthfuls of purified blood—he also dapples the narrative with a generous mix of wry and obvious humour to the point where this lightly comic tone pervades the entire film and its performances. The music likewise is at turns dirge-like then wistful but, oddly, never depressing despite Adam’s ailing state of being. Where I loved The Limits of Control for its structural genius, I connected to the out and out enjoyment of watching Only Lovers Left Alive. It remains to be seen how deep it settles but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.