Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: "Only Lovers Left Alive"

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Runtime: 122 minutes

While big budget vampire endeavors have mostly failed (critically and commercially), the independent and foreign circuits have been much more successful. 2008 gave us the Swedish Let the Right One In, and the following year saw the release of South Korea's Thirst. And, just last year, Neil Jordan's Byzantium, though hardly a consensus favorite, was still a success. These stories work because, despite their centuries old, supernatural characters, focus on character-driven intimacy, rather than grandiose battles. The same is also true of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the hazy atmosphere takes precedence over bloodshed and fangs. 

That's not to say that there isn't a good deal of the red stuff seen on screen, but it's almost never accompanied by violence. Detroit-based Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a total shut in, gets his blood from a nearby hospital lab. Though the temptation to feed on a human (or "zombie," as Adam derisively refers to them) remains, Adam remains resolute in his isolation. On the other hand, his lover Eve (Tilda Swinton), though hardly a party-goer, spends her nights traversing the ancient, empty streets of Tangier. If nothing else, Only Lovers Left Alive is proof that slow motion footage of Tilda Swinton never gets old. Other than excursions to meet friends or acquire blood (O-negative is the drink of choice), however, the ancient lovers remain in their brilliantly conceived apartments listening to music.

If anything, music seems to be the last thing that really holds them together. Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux open the film with a series of spiraling shots: first the night sky, then a spinning record, and then overhead views of Adam and Eve in their respective homes. Yet while Eve seems content to lie back and let the music drift over her, Adam slouches on his couch. His conditional immortality has taken a toll on him, to the point where he commissions his lone "friend" (Anton Yelchin) to find him a wooden bullet. Sensing her lover's emotional despair, Eve travels to Detroit (night flights only, of course), to reconnect with her eternal beloved one.

From that point on, Only Lovers Left Alive doesn't really change much. Even the arrival of Eve's wild sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), doesn't shake up the film's routine too much. There are conversations about past friends (Lord Byron, Schubert), drives around the most desolate parts of Detroit, and music to liven the mood. On paper, it sounds like it shouldn't work. There's so little that happens in Only Lovers Left Alive, which is why it's a good thing that Jarmusch and his collaborators nail the dreamy atmosphere from the opening frames. The pacing is hardly taut, but the combination of the photography and music is steadily engaging in its own laid back way. 

Atmospherics aside, the real draw here is Swinton. Known for her ice queen roles, it's refreshing to see her take a break and play a lighter, fun-spirited character. A lover of literature, Eve's apartment is practically overflowing with books from across the centuries. She thrives on her immortality, while still feeling the pangs of mortality when they hit (her scenes with John Hurt's sickly vampire version of Christopher Marlowe are among the film's best). Whether trying to dance for Adam and drag him out of his funk, or mourning the loss of a loved one, Swinton is the film's clear standout. 

By contrast, Hiddleston is something of a disappointment. Though the role calls for brooding intensity, there doesn't really seem to be a lot going on behind his eyes. We get a better sense of him based on his interactions with Eve, rather than Hiddleston's own performance. Though the actor certainly has the look for the role (vampires tend to come from chiseled, high cheek-boned stock), his presence here is curiously (pardon the pun) bloodless. Supporting turns from Hurt, Yelchin, and Wasikowska punch up the film, but it's still a bit disappointing that only half of the central couple is genuinely compelling to watch. Yet Hiddleston's role is so often passive, that there's little he can do to hold the film back. If anything, his flat work gives more breathing room to the rest of the ensemble. 

Aside from Swinton's lovely work, the second best performer of the lot is Jarmusch in his roles as writer and director. Only Lovers Left Alive could have easily drifted into repetitive tediousness, but I found myself caught up in every jam session, blood drinking, and nighttime drive. The techniques used in the film, like the slow motion, are smartly used, and never outstay their welcome. 

The artistic and technical aspects are also first rate, making smart use of the modest budget. Le Saux works low key wonders with scenes shot entirely indoors or at night, highlighting the immaculately designed apartments that house the titular lovers. The art direction functions as a smart interpretation of the minds of the characters: Adam's apartment is dingy and cluttered, while Eve's is ancient and beautiful. The former is bored of immortality, while the latter is at peace with it, and thrives on it. Only Lovers Left Alive may not have a lot to say, but it does know how to say it well.

Grade: B/B+

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