- Photo by Gordon A. Timpen / Sony Pictures Classics
(Jim Jarmusch, United States, 2014, Rated R, 123 minutes)
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is, ostensibly, a vampire movie. And on the surface, there's no doubt about it since Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, in her third go-round with the director, play vampire couple Adam and Eve—and Jarmusch surely could've come up with more original names—except he initially spends more time reveling in their goods; they're materialistic vampires (the names are a reference to Mark Twain's The Diaries of Adam and Eve). For Eve, it's about books; for Adam, it's about guitars.
I think Jarmusch sees himself in these characters with their attachments to precious things. To take that analogy further, I think he sees himself and his longtime partner, director Sara Driver, in them, and he doesn't distance himself from that notion since an end credit thanks her for "Inspiration and Instigation."
But I'm not suggesting that he sees himself and Driver as vampires. If anything, that may be wish fulfillment on his part, because they'll both die someday, and the survivor will be left to pick up the pieces. If they play their cards right, Adam and Eve will live forever. He doesn't present their marriage as perfect—they don't even live in the same country—but their devotion is never in doubt.
In a manner of speaking, all Jarmusch characters are hipster vampires—especially Eszter Balint.
It's an intriguing premise, and Jarmusch handily distinguishes his film from its vampire predecessors, except I found it more engaging than truly satisfying, which wouldn't mean much if I was a casual fan, except I'm not. He's been one of my favorite filmmakers since I first saw 1984's Stranger than Paradise at the Market Theater on a trip to Seattle (I wouldn't catch up with his first film, Permanent Vacation, until The Criterion Collection bundled the two together).
Granted, I wasn't expecting Only Lovers Left Alive to trump Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr or F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, but I expected it to draw more blood—pun fully intended—since he's culling from such personal material and since Jarmusch has always been a "cool" filmmaker in every sense of the word. But it lacks any real heat, which shouldn't be completely surprising in a Jarmusch picture, except it would've allowed me to invest more fully in the central relationship.
Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin made one of the sexier vampire films—all dancing, no talking.
Vampire films can be sexy, but the chemistry between Hiddleston and Swinton, who are both very good, is more convivial than sexual. Jarmusch raises the possibility of heat when Eve's vampire sister (Mia Wasikowska) meets Hiddleston's human assistant (Anton Yelchin), but he takes that scenario in another direction, which works in dramatic terms, but does nothing to dispel the cool vibe (other cast members include Jeffrey Wright as a Detroit doctor who provides Adam with blood and John Hurt as a Tangiers-based writer who does the same for Eve).
On the plus side, Only Lovers Left Alive improves on Jarmusch's last feature, The Limits of Control, which found him spinning his wheels to no discernible end. The duo in his new film prefers their belongings to people—"zombies" as the world-weary Adam dubs them—but there's an actual plot and character development.
If the film frustrated me at times, the perversely romantic ending redeemed some of the less successful parts, like the cornball humor. Not to give too much away, but Adam and Eve finally put their obsession with material goods behind—at least for one night. I love my books and records, too, but in the end: it's just stuff.