A perfect engine of corrosive satire, this drama follows the adventures of an amoral cameraman to its logical and unsettling end.
"Only Lovers Left Alive" is Top 5 Jim Jarmusch for sure; a long, warm bath in sensuality, with flashes of Wong-Kar Wai amid the ennui. In its deliberate slowness, it also ends up feeling like a requiem for 20th century film storytelling, and for the pre-digital world.
Vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are immortal, but seem to treat this as (for the most part) more a blessing than a curse: a license to savor the little things, such as the texture of moonlight and brownish-yellow streetlamp light on the buildings of Detroit and Tangier (the movie's primary locations). Jarmusch likes reaction shots (often silent) and long pauses and beautiful-for-their-own-sake closeups (the sorts of images that were called "pillow shots" when Yasujiro Ozu, one of Jarmusch's heroes, first perfected them). Even by the established standards of Jarmusch—a director who devoted a good chunk of his Memphis anthology "Mystery Train" to molasses-slow, lateral tracking shots of people strolling empty streets, and who broke up the already meandering story of "Broken Flowers" with sequences of its hero driving while listening to Ethiopian jazz—this movie takes its sweet, sweet time getting to where it needs to go. And because it's confident that it'll get there eventually, it has no compunction about lingering on, say, a shot of Adam's sporty little car zipping down a desolate stretch of Detroit road, or a behind-the-back following shot of Swinton walking down a winding alleyway, her hips swinging like Maggie Cheung with the teapot in "In the Mood for Love." With just a few minutes to go till its finale, Jamusch basically pauses the story for two minutes so that its leads can watch a beautiful dark-haired singer perform a number in Tangier cafe.
Madness! And so very welcome. The ethos of modern commercial cinema is hurry, hurry, hurry, faster faster faster. It's as if contemporary movies are made to please some hypothetical cigar-chewing old-movie boss type whose favorite phrase is, "Don't waste my time, kid." Because time is so very important to the viewer, you see. Because American moviegoers are so very busy. Busier than any generation in the history of human civilization, apparently. Doing what? Things that are much more important than contemplating a silent pause or admiring an intelligently framed shot, apparently. Like taking pictures of their food, or arguing with strangers on Twitter. I digress. Perhaps it's better not to speculate.
But we do have a pretty good idea of what people, by and large, are not really doing much of anymore, relative to a generation or two ago: taking long strolls during which they spend a great deal of time admiring the play of light on buildings and the sound of wind rustling through trees; reading novels and poetry; discussing science and philosophy and considering those conversations a kind of entertainment. The vampires in "Only Lovers" are ambassadors from the past, the analog past, the tactile past, the meditative past: holdovers from a time of patience and concentration. They are basically your grandmother and grandfather, but they look like Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, and sometimes they drink blood and lustily bare their fangs.
Is Jim Jarmusch himself a vampire? It would explain a lot, including the easygoing empathy he has for these night dwelling, centuries-old bohemians. Were it not for their tendency to sip blood from dainty little chalices and flasks, Adam and Eve would more clearly seem stand-ins for a particular type of creative person: not a rich and famous and popular one, but a fringe dweller with addictive tendencies; perhaps a brilliant but under-appreciated innovator (like Adam, a multi-talented composer and musician who's been toiling away on a new kind of droning, doom-y, hypnotic nightclub music) or a connoisseur like Eve, who can match Adam Shakespeare quote for Shakespeare quote, takes suitcases of books with her on trips, and seems able to speed-read in different languages. (I should note here that, in this film's world, Shakespeare is a fraud, or a front; Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt in a rather amazing wig, is the true author of the Bard's poetry and plays, and Jarmusch's script generously quotes from passages of his work, especially ones pertaining to love and death.)
There are a couple of points where both Adam and Eve (and maybe Marlowe as well) seem like fantasy versions of the filmmaker, who's been making distinctive motion pictures for three-plus decades without hitting what you might call The Big Time. But for the most part the vampires seem more like affectionate caricatures of the sorts of people who eagerly anticipate Jarmusch films, or films that remind them of European art cinema classics, or pre-2000 films that seemed to assume that if you'd bought a ticket and were sitting in the theater, you were willing to surrender to somebody else's vision for a while, and go with their flow, whatever it was, and not demand continual, obnoxiously aggressive stimulation as recompense for their half-paying attention. If you would describe yourself as impatient—and especially if you start to feel vaguely antsy after five minutes away from the Internet—there is really no chance of your liking this movie.
Trust me: that's not a dare, it's just a fact. Like all of Jarmusch's movies, this one is truly and deeply cinematic—articulating its characters' feelings, and its feelings toward its characters, in almost entirely visual and musical and rhythmic terms—and yet at the same time it deserves an adjective recently used by fellow RogerEbert.com contributor Godfrey Cheshire in a talk about where cinema has been, and where it's going: "literary."
I don't mean that the movie appreciates literature and literacy, though that's definitely the case. "Only Lovers" is shot through with references to a shared Western culture that no longer as widely shared, in America anyway, as it used to be, for a variety of reasons (mainly a widespread qualitative decline in the entire educational system, although a mostly laudable multicultural strain is also part of it). You sometimes get the sense that the characters use literary pseudonyms (such as Dr. Faust and Daisy Buchanan) as sort of an exhaustedly contemptuous joke on mortals, whom they've labeled "zombies" because they have so little appreciation for the quivering essence of life that they might as well be dead. They put the names of canonical novel characters on their fake passports and ID badges because they know nobody reads anymore.
No, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is literary in a deeper sense, the sense that I think Godfrey meant: you have to "read" its images to appreciate them. The movie requires active emotional and intellectual engagement. It doesn't tell you why it's showing you things. Sometimes there is no obvious plot-related reason why it's showing you things, other than because the filmmaker thought they were beautiful or haunting or strange, or because he liked the way the shot was playing out and felt like sticking with it for a while instead of cutting away.
And it ultimately seems more inclined to rib Adam (see what I did there?) for his morose distaste for the "zombies" than endorse his attitudes. When we first meet him, he's borderline suicidal, asking a young minion to bring him a specially-constructed bullet with a wooden tip (a tiny stake) that he can slip into the chamber of his revolver. Eve dispels those tendencies just by traveling from Tangier to Detroit and embracing him on the sidewalk before crossing the threshold of his house. She knows life can be hard and tedious, and that people and sometimes entire cultures can be stupid, but all things considered it's still better to be alive than dead, because only live people can do things like listen to country music on scratchy old vinyl records and slow dance with Tilda Swinton. She agrees that humanity has consistently been shortsighted and self-defeating and just plain selfish, persecuting and even murdering scientists who could've made everyone's lives more modern and pleasant, and despoiling nature like a child fouling its bed. (The movie even advocates purchasing Detroit property, because pretty soon global warming will make the southern states uninhabitable.) But she's able to compartmentalize and set aside that which she cannot control. Maybe Adam's true addictive substance is his wife, a walking, talking antidepressant. She evens him out, chills him out. She's his Xanax.
More so than most movies (and like all of Jarmusch's) this one seems to want to drink in experience the way the vampires drink the red stuff. Marlowe, Eve, and Adam especially like things to be tactile. Things you can touch are by definition midway somewhere between birth and death: ephemeral, but in no danger of simply blowing away. They're solid. They're real. That probably explains why all the vampires live like artsy hoarders, surrounded by artifacts of defunct technology (including vinyl records and reel-to-reel tape recorders), and why they spend so much of their time discussing and admiring proof of craftsmanship, such as the interior of an antique guitar.
Strange as it might sound, the movie reminded me of Terrence Malick's films, which will cut to a closeup of an insect or bird or forest mammal during a scene of great discord between human characters, or pivot away from the main drama and let us admire the way the sunlight streams through a canopy of leaves. Jarmusch's vampire movie has a version of that sensibility, but all the imagery is nocturnal. Because the characters are vampires, they admire the moon and the moonlight the way we might admire the sun and sunlight (when we remember to notice sunlight). At one point Jarmusch gives us an establishing shot of Adam's Detroit house at dusk, and on the soundtrack we hear dogs baying; it's this movie's version of a rooster crowing at daybreak.
The characters are clinging to the ephemeral pleasures while taking solace in that which is eternal: namely, their love for each other, which nourishes them both. The movie's unabashed, un-ironic, and often deeply erotic belief in love-as-nourishment makes it an ecstatic viewing experience instead of a depressing one. Right after I left the theater I called the movie a lament for literacy, for shared culture, for historical memory, at times a deeply sad one, but now I'm not so sure that's true. Remembering the movie makes me smile, because for all its violence it's life-affirming. It revels in pleasures of all sorts: visual, sexual, tactile, intoxicating. Adam and Eve's naked, intertwined bodies on a bed; a beautiful young couple kissing in the same frame with a buzzing neon moon; a long lateral tracking shot of Adam walking from his house down to the end of the block and then turning the corner, his 18th century waistcoat drawn snugly around him: these and other fleeting tableaus are all of a piece. In an extraordinary moment, Eve tells Adam about a planet-sized diamond on the other side of the galaxy, a compact dwarf star that emits a noise like a gong. Adam repeats the details with a faraway look, as if calculating how long it would take to travel there.
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