Tuesday, December 10, 2013

'Only Lovers Left Alive' (2013) directed by Jim Jarmusch

Please allow me to introduce Adam and Eve.  They're people of wealth and taste and they've been around for a long, long year.  Beautiful, aloof, dressed to the nines, concealing dispassionate eyes under designer sunglasses they embody the image anyone who's slid on a battered leather jacket, some skinny jeans, teased their hair and stepped out into a smoky night has ever imagined themselves to be.  These are people of impeccable appetites, who know all the cool places to hang out and live a romantic midnight existence of baroque posing and slick music.  And they're vampires.  Of course they're vampires.

Jim Jarmusch is the doyen of celluloid valium, the undisputed modern master of wooziness and authentically weary cool-chic.  From his earliest work he's zeroed on the lackadaisical outsider, making films about numb people dislocated from the world around them.  Only Lovers Left Alive continues this fine tradition, presenting us with a pair of world-weary immortals who've seen and done it all and now exist an emotional, physical and temporal stasis.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston)
As vampires go, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are relatively low-key. Their nights aren't spent with coffins, nighttime predation and seduction of the innocent; but rather with a monastic existence of music-making, reading and isolated contemplation.  They need blood to get through the day, but given the preponderance of blood-based infections  in the public they prefer to get it by bribing hospital orderlies or from other vampire friends who have a hook-up to "the good stuff".

Both characters wallow in decadent romanticism, but Adam has a doomed, depressed pallor. He spent the early 19th century hanging out with Byron, Shelley and Coleridge, and their fixation on beautiful death apparently rubbed off on him.  Adam sees the world as going rotten like a bad piece of fruit and filled with moronic, braying "zombies".  So he purchases a wooden tipped bullet and spends his endless night contemplating offing himself.  Eve, living in Tangiers, gets wind of this mood and decides to travel out to Detroit to pull Adam out of his suicidal funk.

Eve (Tilda Swinton)
Exploring the perspective of people literally older than the hills is fascinatingly imaginative territory and fertile dramatic soil. It's hard not get envious of immortality as the characters casually reminisce about happy memories of the great European plagues, the Tatar rebellion or the simple pleasure of seeing Eddie Cochran live.  They mix a deadpan relatability with the alien; confidently predicting burning cities and water wars of the future, comforting themselves by imagining giant interstellar diamonds.  Both are equally asexual androgynousness, with carved porcelain bodies and ruffled, untidy hair they look slightly dessicated, like walking Renaissance marbles.

These are closed, withdrawn people, naturally wary after centuries of secrecy.  As they give little away in dialogue, the production design has to do some  heavy lifting.  Each of their respective houses stuffed full to the brim of knick-knacks collected over centuries. Their styles are a stunning mix of 19th century louche, haute couture and punk rock - everything around them emanating a uniquely Jarmuschian sophistication and taste.

When you're picking apart a vampire movie what's important is to work out what this supernatural creature symbolises.  The modern vampire is often a simple egotistical fantasy: chic, smart, beautiful.  We want to be like them, we want to be them.  This is vampire as symptom of modern sociopathy: granting the audience permission to fantasise about living one step up the food chain from 'the cattle'.  Disturbingly, a critical element of this is the romanticisation of feeding upon other human beings to survive: the vampire as distillation of voracious capitalism.

I  saw Caravaggio (1986) recently and Tilda Swinton looks EXACTLY the same.  Is she actually a vampire or what?
Only Lovers Left Alive is positively brimming over with this stuff.  Adam and Eve's lifestyles can't help but appeal to our inner aesthete, Jarmusch's heady visuals doping us up real good, creating an opening for us to be seduced by his dissolute rock and roll vampires.  This is where it gets smart.  If the modern vampire is egoism made undead flesh, then the classical vampire is the parasitic, seducing 'other'.  The epitome of this is Bram Stoker's Count Dracula, a seducing Satanic spider who draws the repressed women of Victorian England into a web of eroticism. Jarmusch's film does precisely the same thing, namely it tries it's best to get its fingers into our mental knickers, determinedly flirting with the part of us that daydreams about Nietzschean superman and our own innate exceptionalism.  

As this power fantasy is acted out on centre stage,  Jarmusch is busy fleshing out the margins of this world, balancing the coolness of the characters with a slow social collapse all around them.  The Detroit scenes show modern America as ruin: rows of abandoned houses, theatres turned into car parks, noxious basement acid pools - everywhere rusting, defunct machinery.  Even the people, who the vampires dismissively refer to as "zombies" are ruinous, their blood too contaminated to drink.  

A clinical examination of the surface cool of our leads reveals a blank, empty void.  They profess to be impossibly cultured and arty, but display a striking lack of passion about it. In a telling scene, a bored Adam picks up a violin and plays a virtuoso performance of Paganini's Caprice No. 5, it's technically stunning yet, like the artist playing it, cold and dead.  Quickly it becomes apparent that culture is merely a way for these immortals to occupy their time rather than borne of joy in it.  Even their professed immortal love for each other can be described as a sham; the two only companions by dint of their familiarity and history - ultimately they love only themselves, their similarity filling in for true love.  

The one moment you see them express an emotion beyond blank indifference is when they're seeking blood or consuming it.  It's here, in lovingly ecstatic close-up that the fangs finally come out and we finally, unambiguously see them as vampires.   The way it's shot recalls the heroin bliss of Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, the characters sinking back into unpoised, instinctive joy.  Vampire as drug addict is not a new idea, yet when mixed with the themes of social decay we reveal these beautiful, stylish angels as monstrous ticks pumping blood from the arse cheek of humanity. Constant references to a world on the brink of peril are sprinkled throughout the film, and what Only Lovers Left Alive shows us is that detached, ironic coolness is egotistical bullshit - beautiful immortality exposed as plaintive, weepy mental masturbation.  

Adam and Eve stand in for every wealthy plutocrat safe behind a spiked fence, everyone hiding behind dark glasses in private member's lounge, every curled lip from behind the wheel of a Bentley, the grimace of mild annoyance flashed at you as pass through first class to the cheap seats with the rest of the cattle. Their parasitic accumulation of wealth achieved only by siphoning off the blood of those one step down the social ladder, never once suffering the consequences of living in a world they've left debased and ruined.  Sure you might fantasise about joining them in their frozen, beautiful coolness, but Jarmusch's film shows the cost for this is your soul, relegating yourself to an endless purgatory devoid of excitement and joy, the only pleasure left the further accretion of pointless stuff and red, sticky capital. 

That said, a beautiful critique of beauty is still bloody beautiful.  Only Lovers Left Alive is a gorgeous piece of cinema from tip to toe, swaddled in a glorious soundtrack, boasting literally perfect casting and insanely gorgeous location shooting.  To watch it is to be seduced, but in the most intelligent, expert manner.  An instant cult classic, and one that takes a rightful place in the high pantheon of vampire cinema.


Only Lovers Left Alive is on general release from February 21st

Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt Runtime: 123 min

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