The streets are empty. A threatening haze descends over a once great city now abandoned. Buildings are in a state of disrepair and disarray, and almost no one is to be seen. You’ve moved off the grid in self-imposed seclusion. It was to stay safe, and you don’t want to be found. Your house has its own power source using technology well beyond the capabilities of today. It is virtually impossible to trace you, and yet, undesirable figures knock at your door. You call them zombies. These are the symptoms of the post-apocalyptic narrative, only, there was no big meteor. There wasn’t zombie outbreak and North Korea didn’t launch nuclear missiles. There was a catastrophe, but it wasn’t an alien attack. This ghoulish and largely vacant city isn’t from Mad Max, but is actually a contemporary American city. It’s Detroit, as it stands right this second. In Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive uses the United States economic crisis as a platform for a post-apocalyptic landscape, combining political commentary with the fixings of genre. This is how Jarmusch made most of the film: he genre mashes to find flavors yet unfound by other artists. Largely, his experiments are a success.
Jarmusch’s latest film explores genre, love, and decline, and he does it through elegant symbol and potent metaphor. The example in the opening paragraph is one of the film’s most creative. It’s also a film about claustrophobic rooms and the cheerless pessimists that live inside them. The extraordinary style weeps mood and melancholy but also sex. The camera is tight, and the story is focused. For most of the film, we sit with only two characters, and they don’t talk much. Their names are Adam and Eve, and it isn’t long before we realize they aren’t human. They’re vampires. And they’re in love. Avengers star Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, a recluse rock star, who’s always in tight black jeans and a black shirt. His jet black hair is long, messy, and covers half his face. He sulks and makes rock music that he won’t let anyone hear. If a figure could be sexier than Tom Hiddleston as a morose rock star, it’s Tilda Swinton playing his wife. She radiates every film frame that includes her. They are transient entities — phantoms — coasting through life untethered from everything but each other. The story — if it can indeed be called a story — begins with Adam and Eve on opposite ends of the globe, and they slowly reunite.
Like Jarmusch’s other films, notably Broken Flowers and Dead Man, there’s a barebones narrative. Characters spend most of the running time wandering aimlessly from room to room and place to place, and what little comes to pass is incidental to both Adam and Eve. Similar to Bill Murray’s performance as Don Johnston in Broken Flowers, both Hiddleston and Swinton under-emote, and, also like Murray’s performance, sometimes to hilarious results. Jarmusch has been called a more extreme Wes Anderson, which is to say they have a similar penchant for deadpan humor intermixed with points of genuine sadness. The same tonal map is used by both filmmakers, but Jarmusch extends the boundaries of that map to greater extremes. Compared to Anderson’s films, humor is more deadpan, and moments of sadness are less dramatic. This style is a playhouse for skilled actors (and thus the spectrum of talent both filmmakers freely have access to), with them able to perform in ways unusual to both them and viewers. As a result, the cast give excellent performances of striking sensitivity, and the film is worth it for them alone.
In a moment that I imagine makes most viewers laugh out loud, Adam sneaks into a hospital in full surgeon’s scrubs. For authenticity, he wore a stethoscope (even if it was from the 1960s). After sneaking up on and shocking a doctor, the camera cuts back to Adam to reveal an item he’s added to his doctor costume: a gigantic pair of rock and roll sunglasses. Between Adam’s ridiculous costume and the awkwardness from sneaking up on the doctor, the scene takes on a comedic energy that surfaces throughout the film. It’s only one of the multiple times I laughed out loud. The comedy works, and all the actors are excellent.
The comedy elevates the tone and pacing dramatically, and without it and the endless charm of the cast (some of whom have gone so far unnamed, such as Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright, and John Hurt), the film would suffer. Jarmusch seems to have made the film feel hollow purposefully so we experience the film as the characters experience life, but two hours of attractive vampires moping grows repellent. The characters voice valid concerns about the state of the world, but that didn’t give the film the substance it needed to feel relevant. The complexity of how the themes are manifested through vampire tropes is enjoyable, however, despite the thinness of their presentation. There is one exception. Of the vampires we meet, more than one was a mastermind of some of the world’s greatest art. None took credit for their work and let others do instead. This is a clear theme of art for art’s sake rather than art for fame, and, ultimately, it is a plea against vanity.
But with that sole exception, Only Lovers’ greatest achievements are the stunning aesthetics. The images often take on the quality of a tableau. Hiddleston, Swinton, or both in the same shot, are sometimes set in unmoving positions in space: frozen. As a result, the viewer feels the weight of the loneliness shared by static and solemn figures. When there is movement in these moments, it is measured and mechanical. At times it feels like Only Lovers retreats from the cinematic to become closer to a multimedia art project: part cinema, part art installation. I felt similarly about this year’s critically acclaimed Under the Skin, which might be why Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright called it genius when Under the Skin and Lovers Left Alive got double billing at an art house theater. The two films embody the same emotions and ideas — being an outsider, experiencing loneliness in a world falling apart, and ruminating on what it is to be alive — and expresses them through the aesthetics of horror.
The experiment is more successful in Only Lovers than in Under the Skin in large part due to the fun Jarmusch has with the genre bits. The image of horse-drawn carriage surfacing from fog — one long iconic for the vampire — has been transplanted with an elegant white sports car, a vehicle powered by the uncanny creations of Nikola Tesla. Somehow, Adam and Eve’s nighttime car rides have the weirdly intoxicating quality of being spooky and majestic at the same time. Moreover, Only Lovers is amusing and lets you crack a smile while Under the Skin stares you down with the double barrels of its dramatic intensity shotgun as if to say, “Take me seriously, or I’ll shoot.” The moments of raw beauty are earned, often to arresting results. In the film’s most poignant shot, Adam and Eve are completely naked facing one another with their bodies entwined. They love each other, and it’s hard to imagine them looking more beautiful. Many of the film’s stunning images have the singular sensation of poetry, making it hard to look away.
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