Mr East Goes To The Movies 2014: Only Lovers Left Alive

by George_East on April 16, 2014

Jim Jarmusch was one of the first American independent directors I really got into.   With his distinctive white quiff and his tendency to cast rock icons in his films like Tom Waits in Down By Law and Joe Strummer and Screaming Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train, there was an effortless cool about him and his films that was immediately appealing to teenager (it is a cool that only Alex Cox has ever really matched amongst film makers – rock n roll directors).

Over the last couple of decades Jarmusch has delivered his own take on various classic movie genres – the Western in Dead Man, the samurai film in Ghost Dog and now with Only Lovers Left Alive, the vampire film. This is a very Jarmusch take and it pleasingly avoids most vampire movie clichés.  The ubiquitous plays Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, a vampire with the look and lifestyle of a reclusive rock star, living in the decaying city of Detroit.  His wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton – given her unique complexion, it is remarkable that no one has thought to cast her as a vampire before), lives in Moroccan port and that former beatnik destination of choice, Tangier.  

The film does not have much of plot.  It mainly revolves around the destructive force of nature that is Eva (the even more ubiquitous Mia Wasikowska), the younger sister of Eve, coming back into the lives of Adam and Eve and turning their world upside down.   As vampires they are (provided they can keep the supply of blood as a foodstock up)  immortal (though as ever with these things it is never explained how they plateau at certain ages), they therefore have the wisdom of the ages that humans (or zombies as Adam dismissively refers to them) could never hope to have.     This leads to a lot of name dropping and a curious cameo from John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe (in full on true author of Shakespeare’s plays Stratfordian conspiracy mode), who Eve hangs out with in Tangiers.

The film shows vampires moving with the times – blood is no longer sought from the necks of unsuspecting victims (a practice described at one point as ‘medieval’ by Adam), but bought from corrupt doctors.    The effect of consuming the blood on the vampires is like heroin – blissed out dissociation.     It also shows Adam at least suffering from that most modern of afflictions, depression – a wooden bullet taking the place of a silver bullet, as the potential suicide weapon of choice.

There is also a sub plot involving the bootlegging of Adam’s guitar music, resulting in fan boy teenagers stalking him in his flat.   All of this is pretty cursory and not hugely developed – the bootlegger apparently being Ian – Adam’s guitar supplier and Eva’s ultimate victim.

The plot though is not what Only Lovers Left Alive is about.  This is a film about mood and style. Sound and vision.   The drone rock soundtrack (Adam’s guitar music) and the decay of Detroit – the ultimate modern undead city, full of the ghosts of history blend perfectly. 

Tangier, on the other hand is all dark alleyways and exotica, but is shown as empty as Detroit is  – a sublime moment near the end of the film has Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan sing a breathtakingly beautiful song in a tiny café in the city.   In an endless life, moments of beauty are rarer because it has all been seen before, and therefore so much more powerful when they occur.   

This is then a wonderfully atmospheric addition to the Jarmusch canon – destined I suspect to be something of a student stoner cult classic.  Whether it amounts to more than the sum of its parts is though another question.



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