Jim Jarmusch, auteur of Coffee and Cigarettes and Dead Man once said that he’d ‘rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than the emperor of China’, and this can be appreciated throughout his film repertoire. Although often focusing on the fantastic and the absurd, he turns what could become contrived and clichéd into an atmospheric and highly absorbing character study. This is the case for his latest film Only Lovers Left Alive, focusing on the relationship between Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as two ancient vampire lovers.
Hiddleston and Swinton’s performances bring an air of age old weariness trapped inside youthful and intelligent bodies that could easily have become annoying if not handled correctly by both actors and the writer/director. Hiddleston’s Adam is portrayed from the start as a gloomy hipster musician, the anonymous creator of brilliant music he does not want to be linked to, secluding himself from the mortals (the ‘zombies’) outside. He lives in a house full of decades-old music relics that span back to the fifties and creates his own power source from the work of his old friend Nikola Tesla. He’s also been pals with George Byron and Mary Shelley, to name drop but a few, and resembles an English Julian Casablancas.
Swinton’s Eve acts as foil to Adam’s reclusive and depressive nature, with her calm, curious and whimsical personality, and both seem to treat blood like heroin. Yep, the two characters are anti-establishment, nocturnal drug-using hipsters who drive around at night and look down on the rest of the world with elitist attitudes towards art and literature. Even co-star John Hurt’s blood-sucking rendition of Christopher Marlowe expresses a negative attitude towards some of the greatest writers of all time, claiming to have written the works of Shakespeare, who he sees as a ‘philistine’. This would be enough to repel even the biggest hipster vampire fans (if that exists as a trend) but it must be kept in mind that Jarmusch uses these clichés in character to paint a picture of two people who, if their biblical names tell us anything, have seen human civilisation grow into what it is today from perhaps the dawn of time and deserve to hold a certain weariness towards humanity.
Adam’s Attitude towards twenty-first century society is one of despondency at what our culture is turning into, the slang term ‘zombies’ arguably not far off from the truth. The film is at heart a character piece about somebody who does not find the world amazing anymore, a comment on the predictable path Western culture is confidently striding down, unaware of its own impotence and fate.
The script is filled with Jarmusch’s trademark dry wit and the main character follows the model many of his protagonists are built on, the loner who holds a passion for a form of art. For Forest Whitaker’s hit man in Ghost Dog, it is the ancient code of the Samurai, and for Adam it is music.
Jarmusch often uses musicians in his films, and Only Lovers Left Alive does not fall short on music and pop culture references from Jack White to Faustus. The reflective nature of the film leads to philosophical discussions on art and quantum entanglement and the film absorbs the viewer into Adam and Eve’s stark world, giving us brief glimpses into the bigger picture of vampire society and what it is like to live as a bloodsucker in the modern world. Slow paced, reflective and hypnotic, Only Lovers Left Alive takes the vampire movie and upends it, managing to create something far more thoughtful and witty.