Only Lovers Left Alive is, yes, yet another vampire romance. But before you toss up your hands and perhaps make a snide joke about Robert Pattinson sparkling in the sunlight, it should be clarified that this is no teen romance. Indie director Jim Jarmusch goes in a very different direction to your standard vampire fiction. Vampirism is an easy lynchpin for metaphor and symbolism; their blood lust can become a parallel for drug addiction, their consumption and dominance can represent the forbidden mysteries of exploring one’s sexuality. Instead, Only Lovers Left Alive explores a key aspect of vampire lore rarely given full attention: their immortality.
It’s not in the way you might expect, either. Sure, there are copious examples of vampire-centred fiction where the afflicted immortals fret about the transience of life, how a human lover will age and die as they remain unchanged. Jarmusch’s vampires look in a different direction; rather than worrying about their future, they look to the past through a nostalgic lens. Only Lovers Left Alive has the ambience of a musty bookstore, begrudgingly open to an audience who will navigate their way through a dense, crumbling universe, filled with curios and relics of long-gone, but never forgotten yesteryears.
Tilda Swinton stars as Eve. Fittingly, she would make a devoted proprietor of any such rickety bookstore; her Moroccan apartment is littered with books (a compendium of Basquiat’s art, a Kafka compilation, Infinite Jest, thousands more) and she demonstrates an appetite for books that eclipses any craving for blood. She has a unique, never fully explained talent that allows her to tell the age of any artefact she touches; perfect for cataloguing antiques. Tom Hiddleston plays her husband, Adam, a reclusive post-rock musician who shares her passion for hording relics: his house is somewhere between a uni sharehouse and a Transylvanian castle, filled with ancient Gibson electric guitars and pristine records and black-and-white photos of artists he admires.
Swinton and Hiddleston are perfectly cast. They each carry an aura of otherness that makes you believe that they could truly be centuries old. Eve demonstrates the paradoxical delicate sturdiness characteristic of determined old ladies, while Adam seems perpetually engulfed in a dark, despondent haze. Lately he’s only been writing funeral music, and he’s described – with only a thin sliver of irony – as “suicidally romantic.” He lives in Detroit, which is the perfect setting for such malaise: its modern ruins, beauty decaying into decrepitude, reflect the way he looks at the world; beautiful things turning to shit. Adam and Eve talk of art, and literature, and history, and science (there’s a repeated discussion about “spooky action at a distance,” one of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics). If Only Lovers Left Alive is a book store, it certainly has a non-fiction section.
Perhaps this all sounds a little overwhelming, like a depressing slog that would only appeal to a gloomy fifteen year-old goth. But while the film may live in the dark of the night, it’s not without warmth, maintaining interest with its unique ambience and a dry, deadpan sense of humour. There’s not much of a plot to speak of, despite the occasional feints in that direction, though the film does move into a different gear late in the proceedings with the appearance of an unexpected guest, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) who arrives and has the temerity to commit the ultimate vampire faux pas– entering without being invited. You get the impression that she’s the kind of person who would fold over the corners of priceless books without a second thought.
There’s much to recommend Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s a confident piece of filmmaking that creates and sustains a universe and mood. It’s intelligent and literate, with an interesting soundtrack and impressive performances. However, like any well-educated, self-important sophisticate, the initial fascination it conveys gradually wears out its welcome. The film stretches to two hours but seems unfocused in its last thirty minutes, struggling to maintain the hypnotic captivation of its opening hour. This is a minor complaint, however; it’s an intriguing, mysterious film, squeezing blood from the stone that is the vampire romance genre.