A review of Only Lovers Left Alive, written & directed by the delightful Jim Jarmusch
by REBECCA, May 12, 2014
Only Lovers Left Alive is a decidedly non-dramatic meditation on immortality and love. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are centuries-old vampires living in Detroit and Algiers, respectively. Adam is a somber musician who makes music that no one hears and collects vintage instruments while hiding from fans of the music he released when he was well-known. He’s depressed at the state of the world, which zombies—humans, that is—have polluted and detached from so thoroughly that even their blood has become poison. Eve is a dreamy appreciator of literature who lives in a home packed with books and hangs around with her buddy Kit Marlowe (yes, that Kit Marlowe) (John Hurt). When she talks with Adam and senses his depression, she comes to Detroit to reconnect with him. While there, Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an irresponsible hedonist with a penchant for risk-taking behavior, comes to visit, throwing Adam’s routine into disarray.
From the gorgeous and vertiginous opening shots of a camera spinning around Adam, Eve, and a record (music is their shared language), the stakes of Only Lovers Left Alive are clear. This is a film about perpetuity and how people connect over and over through time. It’s a film that glories in the aesthetic, and Jim Jarmusch lingers lovingly over Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s faces and hair the way only a lover would. They are dark and light, gloom and resignation, creator and appreciator.
There is no complicated plot; indeed, not a whole lot happens. But the non-drama perfectly echoes the sense of longevity of immortality—the sustained state where even the most dramatic happenings lose their urgency and even the most minute of difference in repetition can assert itself as beautiful. Adam and Eve are aesthetes and appreciators, and the film echoes this, too. The camera caresses the curve of a Gibson and the tangle of wires that Adam patches together with the same appreciation as the curve of the lovers’ cheekbones or the tangles of their hair. Attention, the film seems to posit, is the antidote to boredom; fascination to despair. And Adam and Eve are indeed fascinated.
This fascination makes Only Lovers Left Alive an incredibly poignant love story. Immortality is the premise that gives scale to their love, but it’s their respect for and fascination with each other that has sustained that love. With very little dialogue, Adam and Eve manage to communicate the connection they have through touch, gaze, and pointing out to one another the things that fascinate them. Jarmusch may be indulgent with his camera, but he shows amazing restraint with his script, giving us peeks of the characters and their histories but only hinting at the majority of their story. The effect is of a snapshot in time—a mere episode in lives so long we cannot conceive of them.
Adam and Eve have changed their appearance over the years to match the world around them, but in the privacy of their homes they wear dressing gowns from the 18th century and speak about friends like Mary Wollstonecraft. Detroit and Algiers are on display as similar collections of old and new, of the deterioration and resurrection of art, culture, style, and taste. The grand Michigan Theatre, which is falling down around them, but will be reclaimed, is the logical analogue to Adam and Eve’s recursivity: they reinvent themselves each generation, the world they knew before swallowed up or torn down before it’s reincorporated into the next one. The film is melancholy in its meditation on humans’ ruination of the world and its beauty, but there is a necessary hope there, too. For one like Eve, who has seen these cycles so often, destruction and death are necessary for reinvention and new life. Adam hasn’t quite her scope, and he feels the losses more acutely.
Only Lovers Left Alive was everything I wanted a Jarmusch take on vampires to be. Swinton and Hiddleston are perfect, beautiful casting, and the glimpses we get of Detroit and Algiers are the perfect atmospheres for the film. Add in the wonderful John Hurt as Kit Marlowe, who actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, Mia Wasikowska as a thoroughly charming vehicle of chaos, and the always delightful Jeffrey Wright as a stylized doctor, and it’s a pitch-perfect cast.
The only thing that irritated is the way these preternatural beings split down such traditional gender lines. The two men are creators—Marlowe a playwright and Adam a musician—and their lives are their work. The women are appreciators and consumers: Eve reads voraciously and supports Adam’s every endeavor, but creates nothing herself. Ava’s consumption is more literal; she chugs blood and makes demands, paying for them with a winsome smile.
My favorite thing about all of Jim Jarmusch’s films is how he approaches the topic of each with such incredible respect and fascination. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Each element feels considered and selected, leading to a film that looks like a beautifully curated slice of life. It’s just that these lives have been going on for quite a while.