Given how much time I waste compiling lists, it’s hard not to be disappointed when mistakes are made. So it was with last year’s list of my favourite 20 films of 2013, which crucially omitted Only Lovers Left Alive – which was technically an Australian 2014 release, but I caught the film at BIFF (rest in peace). It’s not even that I didn’t appreciate the film at the time – while my opinion of it might have improved in retrospect, I can’t in good faith defend it missing the list while Dallas Buyers Club made the cut.
Only Lovers Left Alive hits Australian stores on DVD and Blu-Ray today; rewatching the film with a greater appreciation for Jarmusch’s work (largely thanks to watching Dead Man and Ghost Dog) might suggest that I’m simply re-evaluating the film from a new perspective. I don’t think that’s the case – though I did like it a little more on second viewing – but rather, my reluctance to include the film has less to do with any perceived flaws (such as my erroneous complaint that it’s “unfocused” in its last thirty minutes, ugh) than my own difficulty getting my head around the film. I remain slightly disappointed by the pacing, but this is strictly personal preference – much like the movements of Adam’s post-rock music, the movie tends to ruminate and reiterate a single theme for an extended period of time, while I prefer a more accelerated approach.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot going on in Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s mostly heralded for its morose, poetic atmosphere and languorous plotlessness, but its 123 minutes present a compelling treatise on the decay of human civilisation. It doesn’t quite possess the same idiosyncratic charm as the pair of films I mentioned earlier, lacking Jarmusch’s playful lo-fi appropriation of artificiality, however those attributes are evident in its centuries-old protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). The couple’s obsession with the past – old books, old guitars, the general atmosphere of decrepitude that surrounds them – is something they certainly share with the director.
Despite the lingering atmosphere of malaise, the film is actually remarkably optimistic about art – almost all the artists Adam and Eve idolise tend to be internationally renowned. Perhaps this is consciously ironic on Jarmusch’s part (I’m not sure if his misinterpretation of Newton and Einstein’s histories is deliberate or simply testament to a director with a limited interest in science, though given Adam says “it’s not a theory, it’s proven”, it’s fair to say he’s not an authority on science). Certainly, the final scene, where the couple are delicately enraptured by singer Yasmine Hamdam, suggests that Jarmusch is aware of such implications, with dialogue like: “I’m sure she’ll be very famous.” “I hope not. She’s way too good for that.” Equally, the presentation of the preposterous Marlowe-Shakespeare myth along with the playful literary references throughout suggest that Jarmusch is not entirely on board with his lovers’ fetishisation of “great” art.
My review from last year argued that Only Lovers Left Alive “goes in a very different direction to your standard vampire fiction” which was perhaps a stretch. Yes, it’s more interested in examining the consequences of immortality than the standard tropes – carnality, venereal disesase, etcetera – but it’s not like those tropes aren’t addressed as well. The contamination of the “zombie’s” blood is an unsubtle gesture towards infections, and it’s hard to see Ava’s (Mia Wasikowska’s) consumption of Ian (Anton Yelchin) as anything but a broad euphemism for coitus. There’s a reason these metaphors are preserved, of course, and I don’t mean to point out their presence in the film as something objectionable.
The Blu-Ray transfer of Only Lovers Left Alive is gorgeous, perfectly preserving the film’s shadowy opulence. On second viewing, I particularly appreciated how Jarmusch reclaimed the beauty of oft-overused orange-and-cyan colour scheme in the perpetual twilight of Tangier. The film comes with an impressive array of special features – a rarity for an Australian release – including a 50 minute “making of” titled Travelling at Night with Jim Jarmusch, nearly a half hour of deleted/extended scenes, and insightful interviews with Swinton, Hiddleston and Wasikowska (featuring wonderful quotes like “They’re vampires, they live without reflection … but I think they reflect each other” from Swinton and “When I first met Jim, he said, Tom, Adam is basically Hamlet as played by Syd Barrett” from Hiddleston).