The genre of the undead, bloodsucking night-prowlers has long been buried into the grave of senseless mediocrity, no thanks to the patronising saga of teen romance, one which shall not be named in this blog, responsible for giving vampires a bad name. Since then, there have been a few attempts of resurrection over the last few years, from Neil Jordan’s fairly decent Byzantium to Timur Bekmambetov’s downright awful Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but none truly raised the curtain once more for these immortal creatures to restore the glorious, dark night in cinema. Jim Jarmusch must have been sitting through a few stodgy, unworthy entries to the canon before deciding he’s going to make one himself – a film that uses vampirism as a thematic device to rule out good from bad taste, sophisticates from the unthinking masses, great art from the deteriorating popular culture. In his most striking and lyrical film in years, Only Lovers Left Alive both celebrates the almost forgotten world of high culture and laments the erosion of twenty-first century civilisation and above all, positing vampires as the ultimate artistic snobs – bound to protect the literary Old Guard and doomed to watch the world rot with cultural motley trash from Miley Cyrus to 50 Shades of Grey. A zeitgeist-y philosophy you wouldn’t normally expect from just any vampire film.
It’s foolish, then, to expect some machinations of plot in a Jarmusch film, as Only Lovers Left Alive elegantly rebuffs any carnivorous appetite for action or lusty bloodbath inherent in the genre. What we get instead is a low-key character driven piece that luxuriates in its witty dialogues, hilarious literary references and melancholic contemplation of the clusterfuck that is the modern society and what it actually means to be a vampire in today’s current climate. The eccentric yet wonderful pairing of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the snobby, deathless, centuries-old couple Adam and Eve provide much of the film’s soul – an irony, given that these two are practically soulless. Their waxing on the golden age of yore – from Byron to Mary Wollstonecraft – is an absolute joy to behold, amid sucking on ice blood lollies and grooving to soul music. The offbeat humour in poking fun of cultural touchstones (John Hurt plays a decaying Christopher Marlowe, perennially claiming to have ghostwritten Shakespeare) and Hiddleston’s world-weary yet wry condemnations of the “fucking zombies” that run the world best reflect Jarmusch’s purview. That artistic sophistication is akin to being a vampire – art and culture consists the lifeblood in which the lovers live on.
The closest thing this film gets to a semblance of conflict is present in the form of Mia Wasikowska’s raucous and gauche Ava, Eve’s Lolita-esque younger sister who jets from LA to the crumbling Detroit townhouse where Adam holes in. A manic sexual energy disturbs the peace, with Ava’s primal bloodlust and unpredictability being the only element that panders to common vampire tropes. But when the perfectly cast Swinton and Hiddleston both take centre stage, we have an indefatigably cool, post-rock vampire couple for the ages – both existentialist figures with fangs, drifting through centuries basking in the strange, sad beauty of being alive and at the same time, mourning the world’s decline to apocalypse – and only willing to draw blood from living humans in the most dire of occasions. Thus, Jarmusch’s ending can never be more perfect. Only the lovers of life, beauty and art could only ever live and survive throughout eternity and beyond.
DIRECTOR: Jim Jarmusch | CAST: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin | SCREENPLAY: Jim Jarmusch | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 123 mins | GENRE: Drama/Romance | COUNTRY: UK/USA