Saturday, 28 June 2014

Film Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska

Christopher Marlowe, 16th century playwrite, lives in modern day Tangier. He reminisces about his plays and discusses his former friends and contemporaries like Byron and Shakespeare. He also looks great for a man over 400 years old and drinks blood because he is a vampire. Welcome to a new kind of vampire tale, Jim Jarmusch style.

Marlowe is a friend of Eve (Tilda Swinton), a vampire who is parted from her lover Adam (Tom Hiddleston) when the film begins. Adam lives in Detroit, an underground musician, unwilling to move on to the digital age but this isn’t the only aspect in which he is disgruntled. Adam is purposely on the fringes of society; his apartment is like an analogue museum whilst his walls are covered in pictures of artists and intellectuals from years gone by. He has one human friend who helps promote his music but their relationship is only surface level for Adam will ultimately outlive him and must start all over again; we wonder how many times this has happened over the four centuries Adam has been alive. He even toys with the idea of suicide and has a special wooden bullet created for the job.

Whilst Adam is perpetually miserable with who humanity has regressed over the four centuries, his lover Eve is more open to having fun with it. She reads books in every language, jokes with Marlowe that he should tell the world he really wrote Shakespeare’s plays and cause chaos, and is always awake before Adam, ready to face the night whilst he prefers to stay under the bed sheets.

From this brief description I want you to know that Only Lovers Left Alive is certainly not the usual vampire story and Twilight this ain’t. Jarmusch chooses vampires because (if they were real) they could tell us so much about how the world has changed from an eye witness account, whilst giving him a platform to discuss his own thoughts on modern culture which, if you’ll excuse the pun, is biting. In this world Adam and Eve can no longer feast on humans whenever they want to satisfy their need for blood because blood has become contaminated and vampires can die from it. He has a contact at a hospital that sells him blood, like junkie buying from a drug dealer. Detroit, a city once famed for his manufacturing prowess and musical history, is now run down and ruined and in one fantastic scene Adam shows Eve the ruins of a former theatre, now used as a car park. When Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes to visit, she reflects all the arrogance and instantaneous gratification of today’s youth who must have it all and now.

Jarmusch isn’t interested in plot as he is in creating a mood piece, which he does particularly well. The film is saturated with music from start to end, from rock n roll to alternative rock to Eastern-inspired sounds to reflect the Moroccan settings, all of which is as much a character as any actor in the film. To complement this, the film is beautifully shot and defines what ‘cool’ looks like in 2014 cinema; the digital video captures the vibrancy of the night in which the film is entirely set, from the neon blue lights in Detroit to the sand coloured building in Tangiers to the night sky which only digital can capture (think of Michael Mann’s Collateral and you’ll know what I mean). The film is brooding, deep, and haunting from the first frame.

The look of the characters, too, is perfect. Far removed from the teen fantasy of what a vampire may look like, Hiddleston and Swinton have hair which looks like it hasn’t been cared for in decades, and whilst far from unattractive, neither of them are poster boys and girls for beauty. One dressed all in black, the other all in beige, the actors entwine their bodies as if they were one and the same person, so used to each other, dependant on each other, we believe they have a love which has lasted for centuries.

Jarmusch’s direction is paramount to the success of how they are framed and his slow, slow pacing gives his film the exact lack of urgency the characters lives have. Moreover, I liked that this vampire film was never about the hunt and the kill, but rather like the lives of two characters to happen to be vampires; there is only one scene where a human is in danger from Adam and Eve and it is a pivotal one at that, following an conversation on Einstein and ‘spooky action at a distance’. Furthermore, when they drink blood Jarmusch presents the act like the euphoric hit of a drug straight to the system, overhead shot as the necks crank back, faces up to the ceiling, teeth sticking out like needles.

My only caveat on the film is that, despite all of the above praise, the film felt too slow and aimless on a first watch to say I fully enjoyed the experience. The scenes with the sister add little to the film other than to have some kind of plot injected into it to stop it from grinding to a halt. When she leaves, she isn’t missed or even really remembered as it’s not her we are interested in. At two hours the film could have been told in perhaps 100 minutes and remained just as beautiful and brooding, with sequences like the Moroccan singer being removed without any consequence to the overall story, such as it is.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: These are minor quibbles and Only Lovers Left Alive is certainly the type of auteur film making I love to watch and look forward to each year. It’s a vampire film with a difference, and anything different or original in this era of cinema is welcome with arms wide open.

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