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Only Lovers Left Alive

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Why do vampires fascinate us so? Is it because they bring out our primordial fear of the dark, harking back to when we lived in caves and wouldn’t venture out at night for fear of creatures waiting to rip our throats open? Or is it just because vampires are a sexy thing, for some reason?

With the vampire film approaching (if not already exceeding) a saturation point in film, TV and general popular culture, it seems timely that an auteur filmmaker would give us their take on the genre. And so, Jim Jarmusch gives us Only Lovers Left Alive.

A pair of married vampires, Adam and Eve—read into that whatever you’d like—live on opposite sides of the world. They are hundreds of years old, and seem to be on a bit of a break from one another. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a tortured musician, hermetically making music in a dark old house in Detroit. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a free spirit living in Tangier, wandering the dark streets, frequenting cafes before dawn. Neither of them feed directly on human subjects anymore, but rather obtain blood through shady backroom deals.

We find out that this is done not for nobility or some sort of moral code, but because most humans, through regular use of drugs and alcohol, taste pretty gross, so they seek out much more pure stuff.
As the film opens, it seems as though Adam has had just about enough immortality for one lifetime. Despite his music garnering a bit of a cult following, Adam is content to remain in the shadows, where he’s always been. We can tell he’s well past yearning for a normal life.

Sensing that something is wrong with Adam, Eve returns to him and the pair talk of times in the very distant past. We learn that Adam has been a bit of a Forrest Gump these past few centuries, having met or influenced a countless number of famous authors and musicians during his long life.

The name dropping of these famous people gets tiresome very quickly, as does the credibility of Adam being in all these different places at precisely the right time. But when Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives on their doorstep after close to a century of being out on her own, her carelessness becomes a serious threat to their anonymity.

Jarmusch doesn’t bother tackling the long mythology of vampires, nor does he try to do anything with the well-established rules beyond obeying them. Instead he uses vampirism to explore the relationship between Adam and Eve, that special sort of kindred connection you can have with someone over a number of years, the type that keeps you both up all night, feeding off each other’s energy, even when you’re far apart. Appropriate enough to make this a vampire love story, I guess.

The film exists without any real drive or direction until Ava arrives on the scene, and it mostly maintains a certain aimlessness for the duration of the film. But at its core it’s about two people who know their love will never end unless they let it. This isn’t romanticised, it is downbeat; two outcasts who have no one but each other to rely on, in the throes of an addiction that is prolonging their lives together rather than shortening them or driving them apart. The film also gets away with its slow pace because its cast is more than watchable.

Hiddleston makes what could have been a maudlin, sad-sack character something more genuine and defeated. The strange and alluring Tilda Swinton is as strange and alluring as ever. Though her stay is brief, Mia Wasikowska gets under your skin immediately, and she is also effing cute. Anton Yelchin’s character is an interesting modernisation of the Renfield character from Dracula, the disciple of a musical genius rather than a grotesque slave, though he’s never aware of what his idol truly is.

The flaw in this film is that without other external conflict, the vampire really has only one drive: to drink blood and prolong its life, neither of which are incredibly interesting to watch unless we’re seeing desperation and destruction in achieving this goal, or some sort of pathos. If the story was about a regular person, the equivalent would be a guy wandering around looking for free food. Or maybe it would just be a depressing drug film. This is better than that, though.

Though Only Lovers Left Alive never really mines the already hollowed out depths of vampirism, its ending reinforces what has fascinated us for so long about vampires: their monstrous survival instinct. No more vampires for a while, please. Frankensteins and Wolfmans are welcome, though…

Only Lovers Left Alive is now showing nationally.


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