Call him an eccentric filmmaker, call him a fringe director, call him what you like; after much success at Cannes and great word of mouth at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, The Only Lovers Left Alive takes the vampire genre and turns it on its head.
(Note: This film was screened at last year’s TIFF 2013)
What is The Only Lovers Left Alive All About?
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a reclusive immortal vampire whose life experience is a veritable slice of human history — having inspired and influenced scientists, philosophers and writers for centuries — but whose current existence is that of an obscure but cult-like rock star whose anonymity is part of his mystique. Getting sick of human corruption and humanity’s taste for self-destruction, Adam plans to end it all with the help of a custom-made wooden bullet, but a video call from eternal lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) dissuades him from his final purpose, leading the pair to reunite and wax nostalgic about eons of co-existence, discourse about love, life and the pleasures of accumulated experiences.
What Does Only Lovers Left Alive Compare To?
The film is heavy on philosophy in the most creative way, think Interview with the Vampire meets Forrest Gump, without the comedy and the famous onscreen encounters with historical figures.
The film does away with much of the vampire film genre artifice — special effects, flight, mind control, etc., — and instead focuses on the nature of immortal existence, specifically the wisdom acquired from centuries of friendships, failures, dangers and the need for hidden identities. Hiddleston is mesmerizing as a cautious but erudite bloodsucker with a taste for creativity, passing off his brilliance as the work of others, shunning interaction after so many centuries of disappointments. Tilda Swinton offers a perfect counterbalance as the emotional and passionate half, a woman driven by beauty, books and long-standing friendships with other secretive vampires, namely the allegedly late playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), revealed to have written the works of Shakespeare after all.
Jarmusch spends very little time on artifice but rather many a scene on the meatier, psychological aspects of immortality, making for a captivating subject matter featuring two very capable actors immersed in an uncommon tale. Hollywood, take note. THIS is how you make a great vampire film. No sparkles.
Despite a great script and impeccable pacing and editing finesse, some cuts could have benefited the final product. I found the latter-half inclusion of fellow vampire upstart Eva (Mia Wasikowska) rather useless and futile, delaying the story which held well enough on its own with the lead pair. Also, a last reel sequence featuring a Lebanese singer was quite pleasant to watch but was utterly superfluous, having very little connection to the plot and felt like filler.
Ironically, the film originally contained some more vampire-heavy action scenes, however when pressed on the issue, Jarmusch pulled a 180 and decided to strip the film of all such nonsense, preferring to focus on their mindset rather than their ability to move faster than the eye can see, etc… Good call, sir.
The Final Word on Only Lovers Left Alive
This is definitely a piece for those vampire lovers out there more interested in their history, longevity and mentality rather than their paranormal abilities, super-strength and other popular culture attributes. Sure, those are fun too, but once in a while it’s quite enjoyable seeing how a writer-director can incorporate immortal life with human history, all the while adding that much needed spice of life spawned from such a timeless existence: an elegant, artistic portrait of a couple, albeit one who has shaped our civilization here and there, by nudging history in the direction it has taken us today.
Personally, I’m hoping for a sequel.
Score: 5 out of 5