Monday, February 17, 2014

Art House Vampires: Only Lovers Left Alive

The Good: Good acting, Wonderful mood, Interesting characters
The Bad: Somewhat plodding and plotless
The Basics: Intensely smart as a slice-of-life, “man vs. society” mood piece, Only Lovers Left Alive is an adult vampire film showcasing the struggles of the modern, moody, immortals.

I am absolutely fascinated by the process by which films are created and distributed, especially in the United States. While there is an occasional breakout foreign film in the U.S., like Let The Right One In (reviewed here!) a few years ago, it seems to be a real fluke and American cinema seems to be one of the more successful remaining exports. But there is a life to filmmaking and the cinema world outside the United States that makes it very difficult to make a foreign film into anything other than an art house film in the U.S. With Only Lovers Left Alive, director Jim Jarmusch seems to be trying to stack the deck for success and it will be interesting to see if his latest film is able to break out of the shadow of the art house to capitalize on the elements he is using.

The director of Dead Man (reviewed here in a review where I can only assume the film garnered such a high rating because of my affinity for Lance Henriksen) returns with Only Lovers Left Alive and it seems like he might be trying to develop a blockbuster. Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire story and, despite the failure of Vampire Academy at the box office, vampires are still pretty hot. Art house favorite Tilda Swinton is second-billed (she may be “c list” in the mainstream United States and an art house favorite here, but she’s a-list in Europe and most of the rest of the world) and the cast is loaded with rising stars loved in the U.S.: Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, and Mia Wasikowska. To its credit, Only Lovers Left Alive stands well on its own and deserves some mainstream attention, even if it does not rely upon action or graphic violence to create an intriguing vampire story. Indeed, with Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has written and directed the logical, adult successor to The Twilight Saga (reviewed here!).

Opening in Detroit at night, the reclusive musician Adam is visited by Ian, who supplies him with guitars. Adam makes an odd request of Ian; he wants a single wooden bullet made of hardwood, like ironwood. After paying Ian off, Adam goes to a nearby hospital disguised as a doctor where he buys blood from a skittish doctor doing research. In Tangier, Eve buys blood from none other than Christopher Marlowe and as Marlowe, Eve, and Adam return to their separate homes to consume blood, they are revealed to be immortal vampires. Eve contacts Adam and is taken by his ennui enough that she resolves to come visit him, despite how much she hates traveling long distances. Reunited at Adam’s run-down studio/home, the ancient lovers reconnect. At night, Adam takes Eve out and shows her historical sites and they listen to his new music, play games, and reminisce about historical figures they met over the eons. Eve discovers Adam’s wooden bullet and expresses her concern about his moodiness. Adam reveals to Eve that he has dreamed of Eve’s sister and Eve mentions that she and Marlow had similar dreams.

Sure enough, one night, Adam and Eve return home to find Ava in the house, listening to Adam’s music. She is impulsive, comparatively young, and continually hungry. When the trio goes out with Ian to a local club, Adam is annoyed by how Ava risks everything by bringing a flask of blood with her and spends the night teasing Ian. When Eve wakes up to discover Ava has exsanguinated Ian, Adam and Eve send Ava packing back to Los Angeles. After disposing of the body, Adam and Eve flee the United States for Tangier where they struggle emotionally with Marlowe’s final moments and physically with a deficiency of blood.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire romance that illustrates the practical problems of being a vampire in the modern world. Jim Jarmusch smartly refuses to populate the film with many vampires and keeps the concept grounded very much in the real world. Adam and Eve do not have a tumultuous relationship; theirs is a strong, mature love. So, details like Adam getting irked by how Eve plays chess and beats him, but him not having an outburst when he loses plays very well for the characters. Similarly, Only Lovers Left Alive takes the reasonable position that vampires would not simply vamp anyone; in order to maintain their secret, they do not convert others, they expend a lot of energy maintaining their anonymity.

While often charmless (it is with a stark sense of realism that Jarmusch creates a vampire film), Only Lovers Left Alive is not without its moments. While Adam is sullen and artistically pretentious, Eve has a spark of life to her. Played with a subtle energy by Tilda Swinton, Eve brings the film’s moments of irony to the forefront, like when she is arranging passage out of the U.S. and has to give the birthdays of their aliases. Otherwise, there is quite a bit of philosophy, history, and mood to Only Lovers Left Alive, but very little actually happens.

What feels fresh about Only Lovers Left Alive is how there is no antagonist, no secret society, no culture, and really no menace from the vampires in the film. Eve has the ability to determine the age of any living thing with her touch and the fangs are only shown out (not ever in the process of mystically replacing the normal canines) and there is a little bit of superspeed shown in Only Lovers Left Alive. Jarmusch also smartly makes the vampires susceptible to the blood diseases of humans. Eve and Adam are patient, mature and seasoned, contrasted with Ava’s reckless impulsiveness. Basically, the film is about a couple that reunites and has to go on the run . . . but they don’t run and no one is chasing them.

What makes the film worth watching is that the performers rise to the occasion of doing little other than embodying timeless characters. Tilda Swinton manages to pull off being reserved without even a hint of menace, like from her White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (reviewed here!). Tom Hiddleston is able to play Adam without a hint of the charm that has made him an international star. Hiddleston plays the archetypal moody artist incredibly well. Hiddleston and Swinton have decent on-screen chemistry.

Only Lovers Left Alive is an interesting mood piece. Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed a film that does what it sets out to do well, but it’s not the most incredible premise or execution of that unremarkable premise. Much more of a relationship drama than a vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive is a moody, emotionally-driven man vs. society film that is worth seeing once, if not adding to one’s permanent collection.

For other works with Mia Wasikowska, please check out my reviews of:
The Double
Alice In Wonderland
The Kids Are All Right


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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