' Cinema Romantico: Only Lovers Left Alive

Monday, April 28, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

The best art, whether of a performance, literary or visual variety, is ageless. Certain vampires are also ageless, which is precisely what makes them the perfect vessel to express the preceding sentiment. Though the word vampire is never used and its exact definition within the film’s world is never established, the characters at the forefront of “Only Lovers Left Alive” demonstrate vampiric tendencies of the classical sense. Blood denotes life, wood denotes death; yet the finer points of these mythical nocturnal creatures’ folklore is merely the handsome contrivance by which the film becomes an intoxicating elegy for the artist as a purveyor of cultural truth. Perhaps that sounds elitist, but the tone is too marvelously dreamy to get bogged down in smarm. If ever a film could make a mere mortal comprehend the replenishing sensation of drinking blood, it’s this one.


Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a reclusive musician on the outskirts of an apocalyptic Detroit, surrounded by vintage recording equipment and occasionally peeking through his rustic curtains at “rock ‘n’ rollers” ringing his doorbell who want to pay homage but whom he ignores. Born of another time in the truest sense, he has walled himself from the rest of America, partially by circumstance but partially by choice. To him, they (we) are zombies. Not the flesh-eating, slow-moving zombies of Romero, but the workaday drones for whom CBS TV is the creative pinnacle. It’s what might have happened had Marion Cotillard of “Midnight In Paris” time-traveled to now. How can you deal with art of the Aughts when you lived through the Belle Epoque?

It’s not a stretch, in fact, to imagine the film’s auteur, Jim Jarmusch, an American independent mainstay since the 80’s, insulated in his editing bay and surrounded by old LP’s and bound copies of the titans of literature. When Adam’s better half, the predictably named Eve, played by a wildly evocative Tilda Swinton with a delirious white wig explosion that suggests she is trying out for the part of Lady Gaga, takes a transatlantic plane flight, she packs her suitcase with poetry of the Renaissance, amongst other selections, a quiet statement against the horrors of airport book racks. Still, she finds pleasure in the here and now, even if it’s out of the past, putting on a soul record and commanding her bloodthirsty partner of several hundred years to dance. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is Jim Jarmusch dancing alone but allowing everyone in to see.

Plot is minimal and atmosphere is extensive. The blood of today’s humans has become too dangerous, too infected with toxins and, I assume, high fructose corn syrup, to feast in the manner of Nosferatu, and so much detail is paid to the way in which Adam and Eve acquire precious supplies of O negative. (This allows for a two scene cameo by Jeffery Wright which is the subtlest form of high comedy you’ll ever see.) They are in love but they live continents apart, because after a century or two even true lovers need some alone time. But disillusioned, Adam summons Eve, and she finds herself hopping nighttime flights from the mazes of Morocco to the lyrical smokestacks of Motown.


Jarmusch has gone on record as referring to Detroit as the Paris of the Midwest, and he revels in its majesty as much as its ruin. Adam takes Eve for rides in his muscle car, cruising through landscapes of quashed American dreams, and here Jarmusch’s tone is less holier-than-thou than longingly romantic. They stand in the ruin of the Michigan Theater, remade as a parking garage, its faded beauty still somehow cutting through the degradation. Eve is more willing to revel in what was than Adam, who prefers to bemoan what everything has become, never more so than when Eve's precocious sister Ava (Mia Wasikowksa) suddenly appears.

If Adam and Eve are sunglasses-at-night, slow-motion-striding rock stars, Ava is an L.A. teenybopper, bound to adolescence forever, hungry for instant gratification and the theoretical lights, an embodiment in the mind of Adam of all that has gone wrong with the world. It is a brilliantly mischievous performance that would threaten to steal the film if the film weren't so good in every facet that it's unstealable. Ava's irresponsibility threatens to be the final wooden stake to Adam's heart.

One could read the film as Jarmusch's disgust with how art has sort of become interchangable with entertainment and thus, one might wonder if it symbolizes an opulent white flag. Except that Jarmusch fought for seven years to gain financing, never giving up, eventually winning out, Rotten Tomatoes scores and box office be damned. Which is why it's just as easy to read the film as its creator's own cinematic chalice of replenishing O negative. He's a survivor, baby.

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