An eternal love story rich in culture, director Jim Jarmusch takes on the vampire genre in spectacular form.
Broadsheet, April, 2014
In his director’s statement, Jim Jarmusch, one of the most influential auteurs in American independent cinema, describes his new vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive as “an unconventional love story between a man and a woman… but also the story of two exceptional outsiders who, given their unusual circumstances, have a vast overview of human and natural history, including stunning achievements and tragic and brutal failures.” Twilight this is not. The film, which took him seven years to secure funding for, is at its roots, indeed a passionate story of a bohemian romance, it is decadent, intelligent, mesmerising and idyllic, but is as much of an homage to rock and roll, art, ideas and nostalgia, as it is to undying passion.
Set in the once-vibrant cities of the visually sumptuous and culturally rich Tangier, Morocco, and Detroit, Michigan, the original home of the American automobile, Motown records and a hub for some of the most influential music of the 20th Century, the film follows two eons-old vampire lovers – “metaphors for the fragility of humankind”, says Jarmusch. Adam is a Syd Barrett-looking, brooding romantic and suicidal recluse (Tom Hiddleson), who spends his time boarded up in a rundown mansion with his extensive vintage guitar collection and analogue audio gear making sexy, droning rock, musing on the time he gave his music to Schubert and blaming the “zombies” (read: the living) for the demise of his scientific heroes Tesler, Darwin, Galileo and Pythagoras. His spirits are instantly lifted when the effervescent yin to his yang, his older, luminous, sagacious, and life-loving wife Eve (the ever-amazing Tilda Swinton), travels to be to him from Tangier.
These two nocturnal beings are a different breed of vampire than those created by Stephanie Myer, True Blood, or any other pop blood-sucker franchise, they have spent centuries living alongside the great poets, writers, musicians and thinkers of humankind and survived wars, inquisitions and history’s darkest days. Our lovers are above the primal and reckless neck-biting, and prefer to chase ‘the good stuff’, O-negative, direct from a medical lab and upon a sip, slip into a ritual-like the high of a glamourous opiate addict. Their cool, calm and sophisticated demeanour is tested when Eve’s reckless sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up to throw a spanner in the works.
Only Lovers is pleasantly littered with pop culture and literary in-jokes, including a direct reference to the Shakespeare Stratfordian conspiracy theory (of which Jarmusch himself believes), where Eve’s Tangier confidant and fellow vampire, the poet Christopher Marlow (John Hurt), airs his bitterness over “that illiterate zombie philistine” William Shakespeare taking credit for his plays and cites tormented Adam as a perfect role model for his Hamlet. Eve also name checks and blames the romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, among others for Adam’s tragic and idealistic disposition. Also worth mentioning is the luxurious post-punk-meets-medieval-goth score (which won the Cannes soundtrack award, no less) provided by Jarmuch’s cult-status band SQÜRL and Dutch lute player and composer Josef Van Wisssem.
At a Cannes press conference last year Jarmusch, wryly joked that he decided to make a vampire film based on the fact he’d heard they were box office gold, but his foray into the genre shouldn’t come as a surprise, Jarmusch has garnered a cult following for his ability to take on classics, such as westerns (Dead Man), martial arts (Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai) road films (Mystery Train) and quirky detective stories (Broken Flowers) and strip them of their overplayed tropes to create completely original, entertaining and extremely cool films. And so this is no ordinary vampire film, but it is how they should only ever be done: with wit, intelligence, depth, style, beauty, and a healthy animalistic dose of sex, blood and rock and roll.
Only Lovers Left Alive is in cinemas now, the soundtrack is available on ATP recordings.
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