Only Lovers Left Alive

Posted: February 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

So, in a radical move born of semi-unemployment, accidental residence at my lovely boyfriend’s house in Sheffield, a twenty-year history of being a filthy goff and an obsession with Tilda Swinton, I went to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive yesterday. Although I might miss this afternoon for the sake of writing this review, the chances of me seeing it again every day this week are pretty goddamn high. A window into the erudite worlds of vampire lovers Eve and Adam – yes, really – as they reunite, it is one of the most beautiful films I can think of, both visually (all glowing colours and warm wood and gleaming musical instruments and the unfeasible human perfection of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddlestone) and musically (oh god the SOUNDTRACK. I’m still wet).

They so pretty

They so pretty

Living separately despite their centuries-old attachment – Adam a reclusive rock    musician in downtown Detroit, attended only by human (‘zombie’) fixer Ian, and Eve  in Tangier Old Town, surrounded by books, music, people, and the equally undead  Renaissance playwright Kit Marlowe – Adam’s ongoing despair at the antics of the  human race brings Eve to his side, only for her troublesome younger sister Ava to  take in upon herself to visit. Such a summary makes it sound much more plot-driven  than is actually the case; one of the absolute joys of this film, to me at least, was the  impression it leaves of momentary immersion in the dreamy stasis of these  intellectual and emotionally aware lives.

My enthusiasm is not to be taken as unequivocal ideological endorsement. To my inexpert and white-privileged eyes, it’s pretty problematic racially – it’s possible to read a subtext of white supremacy, given that all the vampires are white and beautiful and superhuman and the only POC with an actual character is Balil, Kit Marlowe’s carer and implied subordinate (he addresses Kit as ‘Teacher’, and demurs when the latter suggests he is a fine writer ‘in his own right’.) There are POC around, it’s not whitewashed, but in Tangier Tilda Swinton’s distinction from the population and culture of Tangier is used to establish her otherness from humanity as a whole; there are uncomfortable white intellect/racially othered body echoes here. I’m not sure about the racial background of Ian, Adam’s human friend/servant, but he’s at least part white. So this is not an unequivocal endorsement. But there is enough about the film I found genuinely good as well as beautiful to write this as well as staring at Tom Hiddlestone in nothing but leather trousers and ohgod Tilda Swinton several times this week.

Did i mention they were pretty?

Did i mention they were pretty?

For a start, this is the first vampire film I’ve seen that makes a pretty decent stab at  conveying the emotional and intellectual consequences and rewards of living for  multiple centuries. No screaming, murdering, adolescent Anne Rice-type antics here,  for the protagonists at least, although Adam’s unfeasibly cheekboned and soulful  sadness comes poetically close to stereotype. (But it’s a stereotype I find sexy, so  shoot me). Intentionally or otherwise, Ava, Eve’s destructive little sister, works as  both snide commentary on and a nod to typical film vampires – pretty, melodramatic,  murderous, heedless and self-indulgent with no thought for consequence despite her   age. Both Eve and Adam, in contradistinction, are immersed in learning and creating music and art. Adam’s house contains instruments dating back centuries and we are introduced to him through his astute and accurate knowledge of the minutiae of music instrument manufacture. Eve is multilingual, surrounded by books, and continually receptive to and appreciative of her surroundings and her companions, her interests ranging from art and architecture to the unexpected appearance of a particular fungus. Her intellectual curiosity, like Adam’s musical creativity, is relentless. It’s made mischeviously clear that Kit Marlowe, too, has sustained himself over the centuries by writing many an acclaimed masterpiece, from the works of Shakespeare onward. Only the parasitic Ava refuses to learn, from empathy or from art.

To be fair, in its litany of references and apparent erudition Only Lovers could legitimately be accused of both intellectual snobbery and pretension – it namechecks musicians of all eras, literary figures, Detroit history, musical production techniques, various flora and their Latin names – but the sheer existence of any intellectual dimension renders it both unusual and compelling in the context of contemporary mainstream cinema. Admittedly, I am plenty enough of an overeducated pretentious snob myself to absolutely relish the allusions I get and the suggestion of intelligent consideration in areas outside my field. (If anything, it jars somewhat when the significance of Christopher Marlowe is underlined for those less attuned to such matters than I). Fortunately, Lovers looks good enough to provide plenty to appreciate for those more visually inclined. And let’s be honest, how many films portray a woman’s intellect as something to be celebrated and part of her appeal? Particularly outside some kind of homosocial rivalry scenario? No punishment, criticism or curtailment? Eve is just…clever, for the joy of it, and that alone would be radical and unusual enough to get me. But further, the clear implication is that music and art give joy and meaning to these long lives; that centuries of existence bring one irrevocably either to the creation and sustainment of knowledge and beauty or to ruin and destruction, and that the choice is made consciously and continually. Above all, Eve and Marlowe are wise, accepting of their choices and their fate; although Adam, slightly younger, struggles with the human folly to which the others have become inured and tolerant, amused and accepting, he still turns to music and to his lover as sources of salvation.

only lovers left alive 4

You see, they’re cute as well as pretty

And that’s another thing. Eve and Adam is one of the first portrayals of a functional,  loving, understanding relationship based on knowledge of self and other I’ve seen  for a very long time. They plainly adore one another – constantly touching,  glancing, recognising – and even their dialogue when separated rings with trust and  awareness. They tease and quip and riff off one another. Incongruous use of archaic  endearments – ‘my liege lord’, murmurs Eve – may be jarring but underlines the  extent to which their bond is based on the constancy of centuries. In countless other  films the arrival of a difficult sibling and unpleasant situations would be the catalyst  for tension between the central couple, probably before a posited split and difficult and emotional resolution. Not here. Even at Ava’s most awful they are united, Adam accepting (however unwillingly) Eve’s desire to care for her sister, Eve understanding his dislike. Adam’s suicidal impulses disturb and distress Eve but she does not condemn, rather offering herself and her rather different perspective in some sort of mitigation. In marked contradistinction to the majority of cinema couples – because narrative equals tension, right? – they are unfailingly calm with one another, interested in one another, aware of the other’s needs and wishes even when these diverge. In crisis, whether disposing of a body, dying of thirst or booking a plane, they act unthinkingly in concert, their movements rhythmic and reflective of one another. As a result, the film as a whole feels not like a story so much as a depiction of a constant but ever-changing state – these characters who have met and parted thousands of times over the centuries, and loved each other throughout.

You see? They're THIS cool.

And besides, they’re THIS cool.

For all its opulent mise-en-scene and attention to minutiae, Lovers is commendably non-flashy. There’s very little gore (in marked contradistinction to, say, Interview with the Vampire or Blade) and much greater focus is placed on the vampires’ intellectual superpowers (such sensitive fingers they can age an artefact perfectly) than the strength and lightning reflexes that appear only fleetingly, and all the more impactful for that. Again, the intellectual and emotional is given much more weight than any superficial superpower, and yet in their beauty and their passion and their power these vampires are infinitely more seductive than anything Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt managed to rustle up. Talking of seductive, oh lord Eve and Adam are gorgeous, especially together – their pallor, Eve’s shock of white hair against Adam’s dark curls. And they can DRESS. It feels like cheating, this film – it’s like porn specifically produced to cater to my tastes without any actual sex. All the old books and music everywhere, the lovely old antique clothes and deserted houses, the taking-oneself-dreadfully-seriously of it all. But it’s just about clever and funny and well-made enough to carry it off. Which is sort of the point – its self-awareness, not least about the emptiness of the vampire clichés it’s bouncing off. If all that melodrama is missing, what’s left? Feeling, it appears, and thought. Which is the point. To me, it’s as much a film about the constant value of intellectual and emotional awareness – and love and care – as it is a ‘vampire movie’. All the latter does is shift the scale a bit. The film’s pacing – lingering and rhythmic, dizzying and direct by turns – reflects the cumulative intellectual and emotional depth of its characters’ experiences, the camera’s attention to detail and outline reflective of the imagined reality of a life lived over centuries, in instead of under the shadow of death. On such a scale, it suggests, what matters is awareness, love and care and art and creation, not drama and death, and that’s as seductive a suggestion as can be.