(I originally posted this in June, 2018, but it fits perfectly with my offbeat Gothic and horror recommendations for this October)
Only Lovers Left Alive
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Written by Jim Jarmusch and Marion Bessey
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright
Released (US) April 2014
Synopsis: When her depressed lover, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) starts behaving even more strangely than usual, Eve (Tilda Swinton) ventures halfway around the world to comfort him. Their quiet life is completely disrupted when Eve’s younger and wilder sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes to visit.
The Twilight epidemic was finally beginning to ebb when its final movie was released in 2012, but the title of “vampire” felt like it was forever condemned to be a sparkly, undead creature with an unsettling fixation on vapid high school girls. It was a sad fate for a supernatural creature that has long haunted folklore and been granted near-unlimited sex appeal. Though films like Underworld Awakening sought to undermine the sparkle with action and CG-assisted fight scenes, making vampires cool again seemed an impossibility.
And so when I saw the trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s film, Only Lovers Left Alive, I knew I had to see it. Fortunately for me, it quickly arrived at the local indie movie theater, and so a friend and I trekked downtown to see it one gloomy evening and spent the next two hours in Jarmusch’s vampiric versions of Detroit and Tangier.
Only Lovers Left Alive is far from your typical vampire movie. It is not about Count Dracula’s immortal obsession with Mina, nor is it about a centuries’ old battle between vampires and werewolves. There are no fight scenes. And there is definitely no sparkling.
So what is this movie, if not an action flick or an annoying teen love triangle?
It has just about everything most other vampire films do not: philosophy, dark humor, discussions of human nature and creativity, literature, and an adoration of the beauty of its environment. And music.
Did I mention the music? Jarmusch’s soundtrack is incredible, at once brooding and retro and fantastically cool without resorting to Top 40 pop hits. It’s the kind of soundtrack that I will happily listen to on repeat for days at a time and never tire of. It features a cover of Wanda Jackson’s critically acclaimed song, ‘Funnel of Love’, from 1961, as well as a duo comprising Dutch lutenist Jozef van Wissem and Jarmusch himself. Though the music stands on its own it– like the rest of the film– is inspired by the locations the film takes place in, such as one notable scene featuring a performance by Lebanese singer-songwriter Yasmine Hamdan.
The casting is spot on. After his many turns as the trickster Loki in the Marvel movies, Tom Hiddleston does not seem like the ideal choice for a morose vampiric musician, but he nails it, burying his A-List celebrity status so far down that you forget that it’s Tom Hiddleston on the screen. There’s only Adam the centuries-old vampire. Where Hiddleston’s casting seems unexpected, there is no one in the world but Tilda Swinton who could pull off the role of Eve, the eldest of the vampires whose lifespan (is hinted but never confirmed) spans millennia. Despite her age– or perhaps because of it– Eve is constantly delighted by humanity, its creativity, and the entirety of the world around her. In one scene we see her enraptured as she speed reads classic philosophical texts, and in another scene just a few minutes later, the same delighted expression appears on her face as she watches a skunk cross her path.
The side characters are just as rich as the primary characters. After many dramatic, literary roles Mia Wasikowska lets her inner party girl emerge, and Anton Yelchin fits the bill as a stoner groupie who acts as Adam’s go-between to the rest of the world. John Hurt’s turn as literary legend Christopher Marlowe is particularly memorable, and Jeffery Wright ads some off-kilter levity as Dr. Watson. It’s a small cast filled with incredible actors blessed with a fantastic script.
Thanks to my background in the arts I pay close attention to cinematography, and I was not disappointed here. Films that are visually as dark as Only Lovers Left Alive run the risk of losing all of their colors, but Jarmusch maintains an array of vibrant hues thanks to the artificial lighting he uses throughout the nights of this film. Adam’s Detroit is gorgeous in spite of the decay all around him, and Eve’s Tangier is vibrantly alive with its narrow, white-washed streets and the saturated colors of its interiors. And needless to say, Jarmusch makes use of the contrast between Hiddleston’s long, dark hair and dark clothes paired with Swinton’s eerie paleness.
Only Lovers Left Alive is the perfect film for those hot summer nights when all you want to do is vegetate on the couch with an ice-cold beverage and forget that the temperature hasn’t dropped a degree since mid-afternoon. You’ll want to turn the volume up, though, as it’s rather quiet. It might not have the flair or explosions of other vampire movies and it definitely lacks sparkle-power, but it provides something that those other films don’t do: a deep sense of love for the enduring power of human creativity.