Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddlestone, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin
Two vampires Adam (Hiddlestone) and Eve (Swinton) have been in a centuries-long relationship and are reuniting, after time spent apart, in Detroit, where Adam spends his time secluded in his music studio, producing his ‘funeral music’ that has earnt him a huge cult following. The pair face a struggle to find a constant source of pure blood supply as well as the imminent arrival of Eve’s sister, Ava (Wasikowska) who has a history of losing control of her ‘hunger’…
It is a sad fact that it has been a long time since a modern day classic vampire film has emerged. The last truly fantastic example was David Slade’s frankly terrifying adaptation of the ‘30 Days of Night’ series which did a superb job of making vampires a proper image of pure fear once again. There was also the cult-hit ‘Queen of the Damned’ at the peak of the nu-metal craze with its kick-ass soundtrack and heavy emphasis on sex appeal and of course Coppola’s masterpiece in ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, with Gary Oldman providing the best ever turn as Dracula (I went there) and the film bathed in gloriously OTT lashings of stylised gothic romance.
So where does ‘Only Lovers left Alive’ come into the equation of vampire films? Simply put, it’s a future classic that officially has set the new bar for vampire films to come. Of course, this is an opinion that will certainly not be shared by all. Indeed, many will simply loathe this film and call it arty hipster pretentious wank and if this review works on any level, you’ll hopefully be able to see precisely how people could have such drastically contrasting opinions!
Possibly the main stickler for many will be the plot or rather, in the negative view, distinct lack of one. My brief synopsis at the beginning only dealt with one particular incident in a film that is far more content to let mood and atmosphere take precedence. On top of this, the film’s main focus is just to stare longingly like a besotted teenager at the deep gothic romance that sizzles between its lead characters. Oh and they’re friends with the still alive Christopher Marlowe (Hurt) and the adorably hopeless Ian (Yelchin) who is Adam’s manager of sorts.
Much time in the film is dedicated to lengthy discussions about famous authors, books, instruments, musicians and great thinkers. Some will derive great humour from the cheeky nods to various pieces of classical culture but this is sure to alienate those who are less ‘cultured’ and certainly to mainstream culture would smack of trying to be incredibly ‘hipster’ for the sake of it. It is debatable as to whether or not the film is actually in on the joke, Adam sternly rebukes Ava when she asks for a digital download of his music (he favours vinyl, of course) and Ian is made to look very desperate when putting on his own pair of sunglasses in a club to try and fit in with the undead trio.
Short of Adam’s dramatic threats of suicide to escape the ‘zombies’ (regular people), a certain nasty incident that befalls hapless Ian and the need to obtain pure blood, there is very little by means of narrative drive. In place of punctual neck puncturing, the film devotes to time to simply following the lead couple as they take in the dark and desolate city of Detroit on their many drives at night. This is certain to infuriate most but the film has this deceptively vampiric way of drawing you in and leaving all desires for tension or even conflict behind. A comparison could be made that is almost as if Nic Winding Refn helmed his own version of the still over-looked ‘Near Dark’, with extra layers of gothic romance turned up to 11.
It must really irk Jim Jarmusch that the perfect tagline for the film has already been inappropriately used by the first ‘Twilight’ film. “When you can live forever, what do you live for?” is much better suited to OLLA as it is the crux of what makes the incendiary onscreen romance between Hiddleston and Swinton so compelling. Yes some may find their constant lounging around in each other’s arms and endless fawning over one another distasteful, but what Jarmusch has expertly captured is the idea that each means absolutely everything in the world to the other. This is the kind of epic love story done on such a small scale that we have not seen in a long time, or certainly not as well conveyed by two of Britain’s most talented actors.
We are invited by Jarmusch to almost feel like an unseen third party in their relationship, that they love each other so uncontrollably that it can’t help but over-spill and wash over the audience. It’s not all passionate embraces and endless shagging however, the two share their squabbles that remain even after their third wedding but also they, like the film, have a very dry sense of humour about their vampire status. The film’s standout scene is when the two of them share blood popsicles together, yes an easy gag but one that works perfectly.
Hiddleston oozes the vampiric sex appeal of the ‘troubled artist’, a mess of black hair covers his face and he spends most of the time shirtless but never is he insufferably moody, just an alluring misanthrope who is more than capable of holding your attention with a piercing stare (move over Loki). Swinton provides the ‘brighter’ counterpart, a novel and nature lover who seems to be the only being capable of eliciting a smile out of Hiddleston and the pair have such a firey onscreen chemistry that fits together like ying and yang. A PROPER undead romance done properly and one that rivals even Oldman’s Dracula and Ryder’s Mina, that’s how powerful it is!
The delicious black cherry on top of the film’s dense trance-like atmosphere is the mind-meltingly perfect moody tones of the soundtrack, helmed by Jozef van Wissem and Squrl. Adam’s ‘funeral music’ is featured heavily throughout as it perfectly encapsulates his doom-laden and nihilistic attitude of life and when things start to go wrong for the characters. When the music transcends from simply being background to a key component of the overall success of the film, again much like with Winding Refn’s work, clearly it’s working perfectly. The moody tones are wonderfully counter-balanced by one scene when Adam and Eve dance to a poppy vinyl track in one of the film’s few outward examples of being even remotely ‘cheery’.
Ultimately, the film’s appeal is aimed directly at those who revel in the gothic romance element of the vampire mythos. Those who prefer their coffin-dwellers with more bite and less navel-gazing had best steer clear but what cannot be denied is that this film has all the makings of a genre classic that will be taken and poured over for years to come.
Verdict: An intoxicating piece of pure gothic cinema, the likes of which we have not seen in many a year. Excruciatingly slow for many but for others, a bewitching, profoundly romantic delight 10/10