Going to see a Jim Jarmusch film can be a bit like going to see a Tarantino film, or a Coen Brothers film: you have to understand the director’s style and know what to expect to some extent to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Otherwise, you may find yourself baffled by the aesthetics, annoyed at the lack of a forward-moving (and at times, even mildly coherent) plot, and oblivious to the deliberateness of every frame in creating an atmospheric cinema. Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s new film that recently premiered to great acclaim at Cannes 2013, is no exception to this rule. The film is a dazzling, mood-inflected work that fits snugly within Jarmusch’s oeuvre and brings a welcome fresh take onto a thematic that has been done to death (no pun intended) over the last decade.
Only Lovers Left Alive concerns itself with the centuries-old relationship between two vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) as they reunite after living apart for decades. In this semi-post-apocalyptic world, humans are now known as ‘zombies’ – they are labeled the living dead for their inability to appreciate the beauty inherent in life. Struggling with a constant thirst for blood but an ethical resolve to refrain from drinking humans, Adam and Eve take comfort in each other’s love and in the occasional uplifting batch of O-Negative hijacked from a nearby hospital. The strength of their bond is tested when Eve’s rambunctious little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) unexpectedly comes to visit and Eve discovers a wooden bullet hidden among Adam’s belongings.
Playful and enormously self-referential, Jarmusch’s delving into this well-trodden supernatural territory is refreshingly original even as it draws on previous conventions and rules of vampire lore seen elsewhere. While scores of contemporary vampire stories emphasize wild lust and the forbidden pleasures of vampire sex (True Blood and Twilight most evidently come to mind), Jarmusch’s film tenderly focuses on romance, exploring the long-established relationship between its protagonists and implying that theirs is the last genuine connection left on earth. We enter the story with a sense of exposure to a tightly coiled bond between two kindred souls that has taken centuries to develop. Swinton and Hiddleston’s comfortable chemistry and natural body language intimate the loyalty, commitment, and affection that keeps their characters together despite all the odds. Their velvety couple-speak and caring gestures enable a love that is both grandiosely beautiful and exceedingly recognizable; this is the true point of accessibility in Jarmusch’s film. For all its stylistic flourishes and ultra-cool aesthetics, its core remains (ironically) human, allowing audiences to connect to the vampires in a manner that eschews the typical sexual cop-out the director could have easily resorted to.
This is in no small part due to the ethereally captivating performances by the two leads. Swinton and Hiddleston’s intense stares and pensive mannerisms seem to both contrast and mirror each other; while Swinton serves as the practical, almost maternal doer, Hiddleston falls deeper into a disenchantment with the human race and struggles to bring himself out of an existential crisis. This once again attributes an accessibility to the mystical narrative, questioning the value of infinite power and its hidden philosophical limitations. Swinton’s pallid glow both echoes and defies Hiddleston’s darker stance in what could have turned into a predictable visual cliché but is somehow filmed so lovingly by Jarmusch as to instill their atypical love with a sense of destiny. Additionally, those flocking to the film on account of Swinton’s cult following will not be disappointed; unsurprisingly, the role fits her like a glove and the extended canine teeth even more so.
Only Lovers Left Alive firmly stakes its claim as a work infused with Jarmsuch’s trademarks, building on his impressive previous works, particularly The Limits of Control (2009) and Dead Man (1995). Style rules all here, from the impossibly cool, sweeping costumes and futuristic sunglasses to the slow, sinuous shots of the magnificent location shooting in the alleyways of Tangiers. Though at times the innumerous references to both obscure and popular literature, music, and art can negatively overwhelm (okay, Jarmusch, we get it, you read books, you’re not just a filmmaker!), for the most part they sprinkle the narrative with a postmodern creativity that manages to eschew pretentiousness. If anything, the stunning soundtrack rescues the film from falling into the trap of conceitedness; its poetic original score soothes and inquires in equal measure, as if the quiet guitar strings could capture the lovers’ longing for each other yet simultaneously question their future together. The melancholy indie songs that make up the rest of the soundtrack likewise instill the images with a subdued sense of contemplation even as they ground the narrative in the contemporary cultural imaginary.
Aesthetically, the spiraling opening shots of the separated lovers convey the whirlwind romance they have embroiled themselves into and prepare the viewer for an atmospheric journey into the depths of filmic stylization. While this undoubtedly complements the film’s glamour and beauty, at times Jarmusch is so invested in communicating the measured relationship between the two characters that other elements are picked up and tossed aside, seemingly at random. Certain plot developments are only tentatively explored, and more frequently disseminated in the aura of the alluring production design. However, this seems more deliberate than incidental; as a firm displacer of Hollywood’s rules and conventions, Jarmusch has no interest in upholding traditional story structures. Rather, the narrative simmers and generates speculation, mysterious as the vampires themselves. In true Jarmusch tradition, the film generates more questions than answers, using the vampires as a springboard for an examination of humanity’s deepest faults and accomplishments.
Only Lovers Left Alive unexpectedly manages to pluck innovativeness out of over-worn subject matter and instill some life back into a cluster of supernatural creatures whose recent prominence in pop culture had begun to feel grating. Jim Jarmusch has crafted a film that playfully explores what it means to be alive or dead, and asks us to question which aspects make us so on both counts. Indulgent and overly poetic though it may be, Only Lovers Left Alive unexpectedly manages to keep the mantra of independent cinema alive.