Friday, May 16, 2014
Now playing at an art house near me:
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
Finally, a vampire movie for adults! Adults who are into slow moody art films that is.
Jim Jarmusch’s first film since 2009’s critically misunderstood THE LIMITS OF CONTROL sets a hypnotic tone right off the bat with a pitch black sky full of stars that swirl clockwise behind opening red pointy titles that resemble the credits from those Hammer DRACULA productions from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The swirling motif continues as it fades into an overhead shot of a record playing on a turntable, then a mesmerizing close-up of a spaced-out Tilda Swinton (also from overhead) slowly falling backwards as the room spins around her.
This is how Jarmusch, via the sumptuous lens of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, illustrates the sensation of instant euphoria that comes from drinking blood, sonically enhanced by the Velvet Underground-style droning of Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL.
While Swinton swigs tiny wine glasses of O-negative in Tangiers, her husband of many centuries, a long-haired reclusive rock musician (a deathly downbeat Tom Hiddleston), toils in a dark rundown Detroit apartment.
Hiddleston and Swinton are named Adam and Eve, but despite their advanced age and historical namedropping (“Remember when you gave that string quartet to Schubert?”), we’re not told if this is the original Adam and Eve. We just get that the deathly pale duo have lived through the ages gorging on, and influencing, art, literature (Swinton can’t travel without a suitcase full of vintage books), and science.
Hiddleston casually asks his gofer, an eager rock kid played by Anton Yelchin, to get him a wooden bullet for “an art project.” Sensing her hubby Hiddleston’s suicidal leanings over a video phone chat, Swinton hops a plane to Detroit. There, the long-time lovers luxuriate in each other’s company, slow dancing to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” and sharing O-negative popsicles, until a flirty Mia Wasikowska shows up as Swinton’s reckless younger sister who needs a place to stay.
All the while, Hiddleston refers to the mortal humans as “zombies,” and bemoans what society has become. This social commentary doesn’t go very far, but it doesn’t need to as there’s plenty of creepy atmosphere and ominous imagery to sink one’s teeth into.
The spare cast also includes Jeffrey Wright, who previously appeared in Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle BROKEN FLOWERS, as a doctor who illegally procures Hiddleston with blood, and the 74-year old acting legend John Hurt as Elizabethan-era playwright Christopher Marlowe, Swinton’s blood connection in Tangiers. Hurt has a great deathbed scene in which he speaks of being the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, labeling the bogus Bard an “illiterate zombie philistine.”
Hiddleston displays layers not even hinted at in his popular portrayal of Loki in Marvel’s AVENGERS and THOR movies, while Swinton plays upon her icily alluring persona with a tongue-in-cheek slyness; they’re utterly convincing as this blood-sucking yet exquisitely cultured couple.
It's also a bit amusing that Swinton followed spoofing her resemblance to David Bowie in his video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (from the 2013 album The Next Day) with recalling Bowie's emaciated, pale presence as a dying vampire in THE HUNGER (1983) whether or not that was intended.
Alongside the aforementioned tunage by Jarmusch’s band, Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem’s otherworldly score, which won the Cannes Soundtrack Award last year, adds greatly to the film’s tense trance-like tone. It reverberated in my psyche long after I left the theater.
With its subtle wit and its engagingly erotic ambience, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is a welcome respite from the bombastic blockbuster fodder currently clogging up the multiplexes. It stands up nicely to Jarmusch’s ‘80s and ‘90s indie classics (STRANGERS IN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN, DEAD MAN,) and is his best film since 1999’s GHOST DOG.
It’s also the first vampire film in a long time fit for a evening of fine wining and dining - even if blood isn’t your particular poison.