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Non-Review Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

The vampire genre has been around for a reasonably long time. The literary genre that was formalised by Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the dawn of the twentieth century, even if it drew on a rich selection of local beliefs and superstition. And yet, despite that, there really hasn’t been too much radical done with vampires in recent times. The last attempt to do something a bit provocative and game-changing with vampires occurred with Anne Rice’s discovery that you could easily shape vampire narratives into creepy romances – a technique refined by Stephanie Meyer to considerable commercial and popular success.

As such, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is fascinating because it manages to push the archetype a little further. It builds off those sorts of vampire romances and vampire fantasy epics in order to tell a more novel sort of story. Only Lovers Left Alive is a wonderful piece of mood based around two powerful central performances, taking one of cinema’s oldest monsters and finding a way to make them interesting again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is the most original vampire movie in what feels like an eternity.

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There’s a wonderful sense of fun to Only Lovers Left Alive, a giddy off-kilter sense of humour that really catches the viewer off guard. Jarmusch has a wry self-awareness in crafting his own unique vampire movie, and there’s a wealth of sly jokes and nods that suggest this is more of a vampire-movie-as-black-comedy than vampire-movie-as-horror. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement, as Jarmusch has a wonderful time playing with these toys and tropes.

This is a vampire movie that includes the accusation “you drank [person’s name]!” as a stern admonishment. One of the characters contemplates suicide by way of a wooden bullet. There are a few playful nods to “the others”, suggesting a wider community of undead who really don’t like to hang around each other – after all, centuries looking at the same faces must get boring. Adam ironically refers to the mere mortals – people “so afraid of their imagination” – as “zombies.”

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There’s a sense that Jarmusch has immersed himself carefully in the archetypal vampire myth – while we don’t get any crosses or garlic, there are repeated references to the whole “crossing the threshold” part of the vampire mythos. Adam and Eve are portrayed as conscientious vampires, or maybe just more highly evolved. They don’t prey on the innocent to feed their blood lust. That’s very old school.

Although the film suggests this is a means of avoiding detection, the pair do seem quite fond of the humans around them – in a pitying and condescending manner. (“The zombies have found a way to pollute their blood, never mind their water!” Adam laments at one point.) If they do have to feed in the conventional manner, they seem to prefer to “turn” their victim, which they suggest is the more compassionate option. Both Adam and Eve have discovered their own channels of food supply. Indeed, Eve seems almost playful in her consumption of blood – after so many centuries, it must be exciting to try new serving suggestions.

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Using this sort of intuitive extrapolation from the basic vampire template, Jarmusch has come up with something that is incredibly intriguing. His decision to set most of Only Lovers Left Alive in Detroit is inspired – Adam and Eve the undead inhabitants of an undead city. The movie looks and sounds amazing, with the camera painting Detroit as a city on life support – an old and decrypt ruin of a once great metropolis.

In essence, as a spiritual successor to the generic Eastern European wasteland that gave rise to so many conventional vampire stories. While Dracula has a grand abandoned castle to claim as his own, Adam can lay claim to the Chrysler factory or an old concert hall refurbished to function as a car park. It’s starkly beautiful, and the imagery is haunting. Similarly, Adam’s own creations play out over the soundtrack, described repeatedly by Eve as “funeral music” – a variant of the music he’d been writing for centuries.

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Most interesting is the idea that these vampires have observed and watched the rise and fall of empires. Only Lovers Left Alive is more fascinated by what Adam and Eve have seen and read and heard than in who they are choosing to drink this week. Both collect priceless relics, old books, artefacts from a time long past. Both have seen history move in such grand arcs that the now would seem to have no meaning to them.

Reflecting on the future of Detroit, Eve is hopeful. After all, it’s a city built by the water. Eventually it will be useful again, even if that eventuality doesn’t come to pass for centuries or millennia. Similarly, Adam is appalled at how Tesla has been forgotten and overlooked by the generations that followed him; using a Tesla-inspired invention, Adam’s property is powered off the cosmic waves of the universe rather than a faulty fuse box.

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The only real problem with Only Lovers Left Alive is the sense that the film is occasionally being too smart or too wry or too knowing. There are points where the movie seems to pause to wink at the audience, smiling at its own historical in-jokes and wit. Most of the time, these hit the mark, but there’s a sense that Jarmusch occasionally over-labours a point. Repeated jokes about the authorship of the works of William Shakespeare eventually grate – they are hilarious at firs,t but the law of diminishing returns kicks in over time. Still, that’s a minor quibble.

Jarmusch has assembled a pretty great cast. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are amazing as the two lead vampires, as two functionally immortal beings. Hiddleston’s Adam is caught in something that seems like a mid-life crisis – or perhaps his adolescent punk phase, depending on how charitable you feel – while Swinton’s Eve seems much older and more relaxed. The two play off one another beautifully, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfectly suited pair over vampires cast today. The duo are suitably supported by John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin. Jeffrey Wright also pops in for two nice scenes.

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Only Lovers Left Alive is that most impressive of efforts: a genuinely original and creative vampire story.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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6 Responses

  1. Great review. The two stars are my favorites. Tilda always picks films carefully.

  2. I thought this dragged in places, but it’s an enjoyable watch. Nice review.

  3. Hello there, great review by the way. For me I liked teh film mainly for its originality, dry sense of humour and the cast involved. My issue with the film comes with the pacing, I feel like if a good number of scenes had been cut down or sped up I would have liked it a lot more.

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