Friday, May 31, 2013

Only Lovers Left Alive

It's no surprise Jim Jarmusch's vampire love story Only Lovers Left Alive isn't a vampire film in the same vein as anything you've seen come out of Hollywood. These vampires don't glitter and they've found more conventional ways to sate their blood lust than risking exposure or worse by draining human beings. There is, however, an overall sense of loneliness and the characters are quite moody as most vampires tend to be. Their disgruntled, "hate the world" nature speaks to the film's larger theme, and while it isn't exactly ground-breaking, in terms of execution, it's quietly entertaining.

The story centers on centuries old vampire lovers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the first of many recognizable/metaphorical/playful names used within the narrative. Though, when it comes to these two names Jarmusch credits his inspiration as not from the Bible, but from Mark Twain's "The Diaries of Adam and Eve", which itself has Biblical roots. I've never read Twain's collection of short stories, which sounds like it was something more of a comedic look at the gender divide, but Only Lovers Left Alive is a rather cynical look at the degradation of society through the eyes of vampires that have lived through the times of Shakespeare and Schubert, two examples the film determines to be on the verge of becoming obsolete and/or forgotten in today's society.

Though there is no time travel and the number of historical "celebrities" is limited to one, Only Lovers Left Alive shares a kinship with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Both films reflect on the glory days of the past and while Midnight is more hopeful, they both share a cynicism when it comes to today's society, with "old soul" lead characters -- in the case of Lovers it's quite literal -- hungering for the culture of the past and nervous for what the future has to offer.

We first meet Adam in Detroit of all obvious places. He's a musician and has something of an admirer in Ian (Anton Yelchin) who's blissfully unaware the man whose music he adores is actually a vampire. Ian is consistently bringing Adam new, classic instruments in exchange for wads of cash. As any vampire would, Adam clings to his seclusion, afraid of the celebrity status knocking on his door. Yet, his reclusive nature is only adding to his mystique as his music gains in popularity.

On the other side of the world, in Tangier, is Eve whose life we aren't entirely privy to, though we do learn she shares evenings on occasion with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), a vampire himself. Of course Marlowe's inclusion plays with the theory he was the true author of William Shakespeare's plays. He has a connection with a French doctor that supplies him the "good stuff" when it comes to blood and at one point he says to Eve, "Wish I'd met him before I wrote Hamlet." The film is loaded with such humor, it's the "laughing quietly to myself" kind of humor, that doesn't evoke guttural laughter, but slight bits of amusement.

Adam and Eve come together as Eve detects a melancholy tone in Adam's voice, complaining of the "zombies" (humans) around him, prompting her to make the trip from Tangier to Detroit. Just after her arrival a lovers' reunion is disturbed by the arrival of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve's younger sister, a character whose age speaks volumes given her actions.

Jim Jarmusch treats genres the same way children treat their Christmas toys—as endlessly fun things to batter around, and if they break in the process, well, at least you can’t say they weren’t enjoyed thoroughly. His version of a Western was the poetic, deadpan Dead Man. His idea of an espionage thriller was the off-kilter aloofness of The Limits of Control. His samurai movie was Ghost Dog. So it should be no surprise that his take on the vampire film would be uniquely his own. Thankfully, Only Lovers Left Alive is the farthest thing from a commentary on Twilight. It’s as if the two movies don’t even exist on the same planet, which, in terms of their temperament and humor, is quite accurate.

The writer-director’s latest stars Tom Hiddleston as Adam, a disgruntled musician hiding out in Detroit. A vampire for centuries, he stays at home, only going out to visit a local hospital where he collects his latest stash of blood from one of the lab technicians (Jeffrey Wright). But his ennui is broken somewhat by the arrival of his longtime lover Eve (Tilda Swinton), also a vampire, whose bratty younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) pops in as well, wanting to party.

As is often the case with Jarmusch’s films, Only Lovers Left Alive is less about plot than it is about mood and feeling. The overriding sensation while watching this movie is that, all in all, being a vampire (especially in modern times) would be a mixed bag. Reconnecting after much time apart—she was in Tangier—Adam and Eve are blessed with permanently youthful looks, but their loving relationship is peppered with sadness. The years they’ve lived through are weighed down by the memories of eras that have come and gone. And the “zombies”—their name for humans—are proving more and more disappointing over time, their inability to evolve as a species a source of deep frustration. And then there’s the business of obtaining blood. Fearful of contracting diseases—zombies are just filled with the things—Adam and Eve have to seek out premium suppliers, the notion of sinking one’s teeth into a random human a long-antiquated practice.

Only Lovers Left Alive is remarkably funny, but it’s the sort of barbed humor that tries to keep sorrow at bay. Channeling the effortless cool that’s been Jarmusch’s trademark since his terrific early efforts like Stranger Than Paradise, Hiddleston and Swinton play their characters not as blasé hipsters but, rather, deeply reflective, almost regretful old souls who seem to have decided that love is about the only thing you can count on. For all of its cheeky humor—one of the best running gags concerns how much undercover vampires have influenced humanity’s cultural breakthroughs—Only Lovers Left Alive is actually quite a poignant little reflection on getting older and feeling increasingly more irrelevant. (That’s why Wasikowska’s presence as the callow Ava is even funnier: She’s the closest thing the movie has to the typical sexy-young-dangerous vampire character, and she’s a pain in the ass.)

Did somebody make it a rule that every director has to do a vampire movie at some point? If so, Jim Jarmusch got the memo, and he tweaks the genre slightly in “Only Lovers Left Alive” to fit his own laid-back vibe, turning in a sweet but slight love story about world-weary hipster bloodsuckers. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston have empathic chemistry as the leads, and the pic (acquired by Sony Classics at Cannes) is a smidge more commercial than Jarmusch’s meandering previous effort, “The Limits of Control.” But it still feels like an in-joke intended only for select acolytes, who will probably love it with an undying passion.

The end credits mention Jarmusch’s longtime partner, Sara Driver, for “instigation and inspiration,” and indeed the film feels a bit like a quirky, fitfully touching love letter from one aging punk to another. Slightly upending the conventions of the vampire film (although there are precedents for this sort of reinvention), “Lovers” is a celebration of connubial bliss between two creatures who are still in love after centuries, but are out of step with the modern world. They’ve been there, done that, and ripped up the band T-shirts long ago to make cleaning rags for their awesome guitar collection.

Jarmusch’s characters tend to be either laconic, enigmatic ciphers or garrulous clowns, so it’s a surprise to hear what sounds like a clearly spelled-out author’s message for once, when Eve (Swinton) tries to cheer up her suicidal paramour, Adam (Hiddleston), by pointing out all the things in the world there are to live for, like “appreciating nature … kindness and dancing.”

Indeed, these are basically nice, hepcat vampires, deeply attractive despite their fried, undernourished-looking hair, and exquisitely unscary; they score blood from hospitals and almost never feast on live humans, which would be so 15th century. Hyper-sophisticated to the point of being sometimes irritatingly supercilious, they despair at the stupidity of humans, whom they call “zombies,” and congratulate themselves for all the great art they’ve made and the famous luminaries they hung out with, inspired and/or used as fronts to disseminate their own great masterworks (as in the case of Schubert and Shakespeare). It even turns out that Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), another vampire, really wrote Shakespeare’s plays; he’s still alive and well, living in Tangiers and hanging out with Eve as the film opens.

Only Lovers Left Alive, the languorous new comedy from Jim Jarmusch, centres on two vampires in reflective mood. They are Adam and Eve – perhaps the Adam and Eve – and they are played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston to draculine perfection. Swinton and Hiddleston, you imagine, would require very few adjustments to convince as two members of the beautiful undead. Perhaps the make-up team sprayed on a little fake tan and left it at that.

Jarmusch's picture was the second-last to screen in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the weary audience were right in step with its drowsy, meditative tone. When the film begins, the two lovers are on opposite sides of the globe. Adam is in a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of Detroit, a city that itself looks thoroughly bled dry; Eve resides by a souk in Tangiers.

Each has a reliable supply of fresh blood at hand: Adam from a bribable haematologist at the local hospital, and Eve from Kit Marlowe – yes, that Kit Marlowe – who, in the Jarmusch world, is also a vampire, is played by John Hurt, and wrote the complete works of Shakespeare.

Early on, Eve flies to Detroit and the couple are happily reunited. They drive around the city at night visiting points of interest to vampires – “Look, there’s Jack White’s house,” says Adam – and sup top grade Type O Negative plasma from dainty glass goblets. Afterwards they slump backwards in a spaced-out state, utterly bloody-minded.

At one moment in Jim Jarmusch's new movie, Tilda Swinton's character points to the night sky and says: "There's a diamond up there the size of a planet. It emits the music of a gigantic gong." Jarmusch, on the hand, emits movies as if he has been smoking a gigantic bong. Only Lovers Left Alive is an indulgent, eccentric midnight movie with a great deal of muso musing about vinyl and guitars and cool retro stuff. If there was a prize at Cannes for Most Studenty Film, this would absolutely walk off with it. We flit with bat-like swiftness from Tangier to Detroit and back to Tangier, as the story unfolds: the deadpan-funny tale of beautiful vampire creatures, exquisite aesthetes with fastidious tastes, razor-sharp canines and cheekbones, and long hair not dissimilar from that worn by Michael Sheen in the Twilight movies. They live their own crepuscular, eternal existence in the 21st century, having been born many centuries or millennia before.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, and Jarmusch playfully allows us to assume that they are the first humans, before cancelling or modifying that assumption by bringing in Eve's rock-chick sister Ava, played with a swinging Larndarn accent by Mia Wasikowska. Adam lives in Detroit, Michigan, a reclusive rock star, who has built up a huge cult following. Adam is a bit snobbish about humans, whom he calls "zombies", but has one with whom he's friendly-ish: Ian (Anton Yelchin), who gets him all the obscure and expensive stuff he likes. But basically Adam spends his cash on vast amounts of blood from a nervous hospital doctor, played by Jeffrey Wright — the most relaxed and funniest performance. Meanwhile, his love Eve has been spending some time away from him in Tangier; she gets her blood from Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt. She doesn't appear to know any vampires who are not legendary figures. Why doesn't Christopher Marlowe get to look super-cool and young, incidentally? Adam persuades Eve to come to see him in Tangier, and the re-igniting of their eternal affair brings them to a crisis.

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