With the possible exception of Harmony Korine, Jim Jarmusch is about as hipster as American independent cinema gets. It’s a shame that this carries such a negative connotation, as the man has made some great films over his career, yet they have remained doggedly under the radar. Even his breakout ‘hits’ (Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Broken Flowers) have been comparatively modest. Who even saw his (undervalued) last feature The Limits Of Control? No, when it comes to Jarmusch movies, by and large, you’re wearily likely to hear the tiresome conversational prefix, “You’ve probably never heard of it, but…”
From the outset his latest seems torn between continuing this trend and trying to break away from it. Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch’s attempt at that most popular of fantasies; the vampire movie. This being Jarmusch however, there’s little to connect to the tween-nonsense of Twilight nor the exasperating downward spiral of True Blood. No, Jarmusch draws our attention to an ageless couple, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), and their cooped up modern-day ennui.
Boasting a small cast crammed into few locations, it suggests the kind of overly-talky intellectual exercise that one might lazily expect from a small ‘arty’ picture. With its pretty-boy lead as a kind of Trojan horse, Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis springs immediately to mind. Fortunately, however, Jarmusch’s film is far more accessible and enjoyable than that, not least because Hiddleston is more than just a pretty face.
At it’s literally dizzying beginning, Only Lovers Left Alive finds Adam and Eve living apart; he is in Detroit, she has a place in Tangier , though they’ve been married countless times over the centuries (when you have all eternity I suppose every couple needs some time apart…). Adam lurks within his cluttered apartment/recording studio, eking out a reclusive existence as a cult rock musician, asking unusual demands of a trusted ‘zombie’ (human) assistant named Ian (Anton Yelchin) and generally sinking into apathy and depression as he orders a sole wooden bullet to end it all.
Jarmusch’s decision to cast Adam as a rock musician is a canny one – like vampires, rock stars are predisposed to the notion of myth and mysterious celebrity. There’s a distinct aura of Robert Smith to Hiddleston’s Adam.
Separated by an ocean but keenly aware of changes to her other half (and there’s a nice little bit of dialogue about that later on), Eve takes some connecting night flights to join Adam and coax him out of his shoegaze-inflected pit of despair. They drive at night, visit local places of interest (“that’s Jack White’s house”), or lounge beautifully in Adam’s fascinating tumble-down house; a nest of different technologies mingling, their cables like sleeping vipers.
These creatures of the night – the ‘V’ word is never used – are enlightened souls. Feeding off of humans is so last century. Instead Adam procures their food from a local hospital, engaging in some delightful scenes of subterfuge with a doctor named Watson (Jeffrey Wright), who passes him the very best O Negative, for a price. At these meetings – and this should help identify the humour coursing throughout Jarmusch’s picture – Adam transacts his business as Dr. Faust.
And so the film exists in this heightened world, sparking off of the wonderful chemistry between Hiddleston and Swinton. Hiddleston brings some of that devilish wit that has made Loki such a boon to the Marvel movies, but tempers it with the brittle sullenness of the misunderstood artist. Swinton meanwhile has rarely if ever seemed more perfectly cast, relishing Eve’s eternal vivaciousness. As good as Hiddleston is, she steals the movie at every turn. Their wonderful chemistry together rouses Only Lovers Left Alive from a slow start into a hugely enjoyable depiction of outsider romance.
Jarmusch then broadens the picture about midway through, just when you start to wonder how he might sustain this two-hander, as pleasing as it is. An unexpected – and unwanted – visit from Eve’s ‘sister’ Ava (Mia Wasikowska) twists the dynamic further, pitching us more directly into the realms of comedy. Ava, frozen in youth, is an impingement on Adam and Eve’s rekindled reverie for one another, and, as a begrudged night on the tiles reveals – a liability. However her calamitous visit turns out, in hindsight, to provide the very catalyst Adam may need to make some abrupt changes in his (un)life.
Only Lovers Left Alive is not perfect, but for long stretches it does a damned good impression. The aforementioned chemistry between Hiddleston and Swinton does a lot of the work, but Jarmusch’s film is happy to poke fun at its own elitist attitude, mocking hipster sensibilities continuously. The more extended punchline is that this film seems likely to be embraced by the very set it lampoons. At the very least it deserves placement next to every worn copy of Withnail & I littering student halls across the country. Such is the gleefully exasperated tone here; the world may have gone to shit, but Adam and Eve are keen to relish in the small pleasures that endure – art and music and love and the odd scuzzy rock gig.
There are elements that don’t quite work. As wonderfully as he is to see at all times, John Hurt’s involvement as an elderly acquaintance of Eve’s who acted as ghost-writer for Shakespeare feels entirely extraneous, and as the film pushes to a two-hour run time, might’ve been quite easily excised. Yet even so, Hurt’s presence adds to Adam and Eve’s ethos that indulging in the small pleasures is what makes an endless life so endurable. And it must be said that, after an attention-grabbing start, the film flounders slightly before capturing the audience with its ongoing story.
In the company of these two, however, Jarmusch achieves what the best supernatural fiction accomplishes; he paints a believable fantasy that we as viewers would happily devote more time (perhaps all time?) to. Easily the best vampire film since Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst and probably the most enjoyable Jarmusch movie since Ghost Dog (or even before that), Only Lovers Left Alive seems destined to be one of the year’s greatest pleasures. It probably wont become famous, but as Eve would say, it’s far too good for that anyway. Go tell your hipster friend about it, before they have a chance to tell you, “you’ve probably never heard of it but…”