It’s amazing how popularity can change perception. When Stephenie Meyer’s 2005 novel, Twilight, cracked the New York Times bestseller list, vampires were brought back into the mainstream in a big way. Beginning in 2008, Meyer’s series was adapted into five movies and followed closely by HBO’s True Blood (also 2008) and CW’s The Vampire Diaries (2009). Vampires became a cash cow, but YouTube videos, TV shows, and movies parodied the immortal bloodsuckers to diminishing returns.
Which is why it came as such a shock when writer/director Jim Jarmusch announced that he, too, was making a vampire movie. One of the hippest directors around, Jarmusch isn’t one for the mainstream or shifts in pop culture. Instead, Jarmusch favors personal projects. Visually baroque movies capture dilapidation with a quiet beauty while characters coolly muse about humanity. Turns out, those bloodsuckers were right up his alley.
Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive observes the decay of culture and society not from within but from without. The lovers of the title, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), have been married for centuries but now live apart, he in Detroit, she in Tangiers. Adam is depressed and ready to end his eternal existence, and Eve, sensing that something is amiss, heads to Detroit. They reunite, and all is well for a spell, but then Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), arrives and disrupts their Edenic existence.
That is about as much plot as Jarmusch needs to make a movie work. The rest is left up to Hiddleston and Swinton, and they pull it off. The two move and sway to the same silent symphony and look good doing it.
Yet, what makes Lovers so excellent and unusual is the serious attention Jarmusch devotes to the trouble with being immortal. What would it take to survive as a 500-year-old vampire? How do you keep people from realizing you never get old and never work? How does one travel without proper documents? How to obtain blood when humans have polluted their red blood cells with drugs, drink, prescription medication, and GMOs? And then there is that little problem of never dying. What does one do while living forever? Eve reads, Adam rocks out, but mostly, they drift. Up and down the abandoned roads of Detroit and through the alleys of Tangiers, constantly burning time that for them will never end.
At first glance, Only Lovers Left Alive looks like an attempt to take back the vampire from tweens and Mormons squeamish about blood and sex. Maybe, but I don’t think that is Jarmusch’s end game. Jarmusch doesn’t seem interested in subverting the modern-day vampire genre or trying to take it back from anyone. Instead, Only Lovers Left Alive is the bait for all those fertile young minds obsessed with sparkling vampires. Bait designed to draw them into the theater and show them what really good filmmaking has to offer. It might even open their minds to better music, better literature, and better cinema. They will wonder, who is this Nikolas Tesla that Adam idolizes? What’s all this about Christopher Marlowe claiming to have written the works of Shakespeare? They might even seek out other movies from Jarmusch’s filmography. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I don’t see Only Lovers Left Alive as a giant middle finger to all those love-sickened, morose Bella and Edward wannabes. I think it’s Jarmusch’s invitation to those across the aisle: “Come on in. The water’s fine.”
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Reinhard Brundig, Jeremy Thomas
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright, John Hurt
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 123 minutes, Premiered May 25, 2013 at the Cannes Film Festival
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 13, “Team Jarmusch.”
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