Featuring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Movie website: www.onlyloversleftalive.com.au/
Australian release date: April 17, 2014
Verdict: A fun ride but too cool for school, with more to chew on aesthetically than cerebrally.
Vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), lovers for centuries, are currently living separate lives in Detroit and Tangiers respectively. Adam spends his nights writing and recording dark-toned rock music in his isolated, run-down, double-storey outer suburban house. He is mired in depression over the mess the “zombies” (humans) are making of the world, and a concerned Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. Their reunion is disrupted when Eve’s irresponsible, hedonistic and reckless younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) lobs on them unannounced. Forced to flee the consequences of the havoc she wreaks, Adam reluctantly relocates to Eve’s place in Tangiers, but there they face unexpected crises.
Things have moved on for vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s 21st century take on the genre. Feeding au naturale carries the risk of ingesting diseased or contaminated blood, so Adam and Eve score pure blood smuggled from hospitals. It’s all so much more civilised than in ol’ Dracula’s day. These modern vamps sip the precious red from expensive wine goblets, savouring every viscous drop, which is not just life sustaining but induces a state of intense euphoria. Addiction has never looked so stylish.
Vampires, either. Adam and Eve are the epitome of bohemian cool. The former is a slim black-garbed goth-grown-up rocknroll genius who creates his music surrounded by vintage 60s amps, recording consoles (analogue, of course), and a horde of rare and legendary electric guitars. The latter is an exotic, pale, flowing-haired sophisticate who sways along the winding nocturnal streets of Tangiers looking equally arresting in eastern robes or perfectly-fitting jeans when she is not splayed out devouring works of large L literature in her boudoir.
While rock is Adam’s current genre of choice, through the centuries he has worked in classical and other modes, some of his pieces having been appropriated, unacknowledged, by famous composers. Eve is not an artist, but her taste is vastly informed and impeccable, and she declares that she loves Adam’s current work. The implied case for rocknroll being ranked equally with the great musical forms of past eras (and why not?) is undermined somewhat by the quality of Adam’s music, an excerpt of which recurs as a refrain throughout the movie. Actually the work of Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, it’s intense and brooding and works well as an atmospheric vampire movie adjunct, but is otherwise unremarkable. Sorry Jim.
The mood lightens considerably when party-vampire Ada (played with fun and sass by Mia Wasinowska), younger sis of Eve, arrives on the scene. She provides some much-needed relief from Adam’s preciousness and self-absorption, and is the agent of some of the best moments of humour in the movie. For example, the morning after recklessly draining the blood of a muso she’d seduced she complains of nausea, to which Adam snaps: “Well, what do you expect – he’s from the music industry.”
There are numerous little winks at the viewer from Jarmusch, including literary and cinematic allusions, wryly amusing putdowns of some of Western history’s most celebrated poets and writers, and preposterously iconoclastic digs at Shakespeare. However, there are some tonally jarring instances of the director’s irony deserting him when he uses the characters as directorial mouthpieces – a rant from Adam on the human damage inflicted on the natural environment is close to cringeworthy.
That said, the characterisation of humankind as “zombies” is a clever and effective defamiliarisation device, switching the vampires from outsider to insider, and us along with them; we identify with them, not “us”, and are therefore receptive to their observations. It’s just unfortunate that Adam is so transparently hijacked by the director at times.
There is no doubting the visual beauty of much of the film and the craftsmanship and imaginative vision behind it. However, there is a niggling sense – again, focused in the Adam character – of self-conscious cool. Jarmusch has always been big on style, but there are times here in which it comes across as a projection of self-important suss, of hipper-than-thouness.
These reservations notwithstanding, Tom Hiddleston looks the part as Adam and plays him as well as the material allows. John Hurt makes the most of his limited screen time as an ailing ancient vampire. And if you’re a Tilda Swinton fan, take note: she’s never looked so magnetically attractive and beguiling. But why the nude scene in which her head is ludicrously grafted on to a much younger body double via CGI? Just cos you can don’t mean you should…
Gripes aside, this is a fun ride, albeit a slow-paced one. There’s more to chew on aesthetically than cerebrally, but given the genre that’s OK – unless you’re a Jarmusch enthusiast with higher expectations.
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