Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton languish in their immortality in Jim Jarmusch’s brooding, art-house take on the vampire craze.

For Adam and Eve, time does not pass, but lingers. With their pale faces and long, slender limbs draped in voluminous robes made from dark, heavy cloths, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) present a perversely beautiful twist on their biblical namesakes. This is a movie about vampires, but it has nothing to do with the vampires that have come to dominate pop culture in the last decade. Instead, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the latest from eccentric director Jim Jarmusch, aims to capture a moment and a mood, a world of heavy curtains, yellow light, and enduring night.

Adam and Eve are vampires who have passed the long years of their existence befriending, inspiring, and in some cases, creating for history’s greatest artists. From Shakespeare to Schubert to Tesla, the litany of names mentioned is like a parade through the annals of western civilization. Though they cannot live without each other, they live apart. Adam makes his home on the outskirts of an abandoned Detroit, composing music and feeding off blood supplied by a doctor happy to take money without asking questions. Eve, on the other hand, resides in Tangier, where she spends her nights reading books of all languages and chatting with Christopher Marlowe, a member of the undead still smarting over Shakespeare’s plagiarism. 

Disgusted with the human race, Adam contemplates suicide, leading Eve to come visit and cheer him up.  Reunited, the happy couple play chess, eat popsicles, and go for long drives at night—the picture of blissful domesticity—until Eve’s sister, the reckless Ava (Mia Wasikowska) suddenly appears. This all makes the film sound much more dramatic than it feels, however, and while there is plenty of action to drive the story forward, Jarmusch is not interested in the plot so much as in his vision—the characters, the artistic sensibility they espouse, the timelessness they exude, and the striking images they present.

“Only Lovers” could easily have been a collection of striking, atmospheric images peppered with literary references and connected by a flimsy story—were it not for the performances of its two lead actors. Jarmusch (or his casting directors) deserve a prize just for choosing Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (can we please call them Tiddleston?) to be vampire lovers. As strange as the pairing seems on paper, it is perfect for this movie. Graceful and ethereal, Swinton and Hiddleston seem hewn from the same form. They lean upon each other with the comfort and ease honed by centuries of companionship, and yet they maintain a strange chemistry. Swinton remains one of the most enigmatic actors working in movies today, and as Eve she seems to carry the wisdom of the world in her eyes. Hiddleston proves to be her equal, and manages to bring levity and wit to a character who primarily broods and sulks. For large stretches of the movie, it’s enough to just watch Adam and Eve be.

While much has been made of Jarmusch’s attitudes towards art—Adam spends much of his time lamenting the “zombie” state of the human race—what was striking in this movie about immortals was the proximity of death. It is only natural that one extreme evokes the other, but the hint of death hangs over the entire movie. Adam contemplates suicide, he and Eve are not opposed to taking lives when no other feeding options present themselves, and they themselves can be poisoned by the blood they feed upon.

In one scene, Adam and Eve toss a corpse into a pool of acid and watch it dissolve. The body disappears into the water, but for a moment the skull bobs stubbornly up and down. Even if the movie hadn’t mentioned Shakespeare multiple times already—including identifying Adam as a prototype for Hamlet—the Prince of Denmark would still have come to mind. As Eve pauses to gaze at the portraits hung on Adam’s wall, the gallery of literati they’ve known through the years, the overwhelming sense is that they have all gone while Adam and Eve remain. They are indeed the only lovers left alive.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

For Your Consideration: April 11, 2014

 

 

Have you ever looked at a film’s cast list on paper and wondered if some studio assistant made a mistake in the press release? Clicked through the IMDB page and just been at a total loss to picture how two actors could mesh together on the screen? It’s not even necessarily a negative reaction, nor ultimately a judgment on the movie itself – there are some savvy casting directors out there in the industry that can find fruitful collaborations in the most unlikely of places. But this week at The Best Films of Our Lives we’re celebrating that fleeting moment of uncertainty, that perverse moment of defied expectations (before we all go on Twitter to bitch and moan a bit). For this weekend’s viewing, here are some on-screen pairings that made us, at least initially, think nothing but, “huh….that’s weird.”

– Ethan

“Harold and Maude” (1971)

Streaming on Netflix and Amazon Instant

Cast: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles

This might be cheating the spirit of this column a bit, since much of the point of Hal Ashby’s cult film is the apparent mismatch between its romantic leads, young Harold (Bud Cort) and the 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). But even taking into account the intentional eccentricities and subversiveness of writer Colin Higgins’ scenario, it’s easy to forget how peculiar the specific casting was. Cort had been plucked out a revue show only a few years earlier by Robert Altman, and his only previous film role of note was the title role in Altman’s “Brewster McCloud,” a generally ridiculed flop at the time (it’s since gained something of its own cult following). Gordon, meanwhile, though an accomplished stage actress, had mostly made her Hollywood career in screenwriting, receiving Oscar nominations for “A Double Life” and the Tracy/Hepburn classics “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike;” it wasn’t until she was in her 70s that she gained widespread fame as the satanic busybody of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Together they made the most perverse combination of obscurity and broken expectations, and it ended up making Ashby’s black comedy all the more bizarrely poignant.

Ethan

“Take This Waltz” (2011)

Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman

Streaming on Netflix

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen make a pretty weird couple, but “Take This Waltz,” a sad, sweet story about an affair, pivots upon this clumsy but endearing pairing. Margot (Williams) loves Lou (Rogen), and in many ways, they fit well together. But as it always is in these kinds of stories, there’s that inexplicable something missing. That something seems to appear in the form of Daniel (Luke Kirby), a handsome, artistic man who lives across the street. In this beautifully directed film by Sarah Polley, Margot’s face is often inscrutable, her motives baffling, but the movie is not interested in understanding why a marriage falls apart. Rather, it seeks to document the process of falling in love, out of love, and maybe landing somewhere in between. Williams inhabits her character so fully that we feel the weight of Margot’s life, the ennui and the frustration, the intimacy she seeks, and the mistakes she carries with her as lightly and yet as permanently as if they were within her beige tote bag.

– Elaine

“Only Lovers Left Alive” (2014)

In theaters today (limited release)

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright

If ever there was a weird couple, then Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston take the cake. Playing vampire lovers who have spent their centuries inspiring artists as varied as Lord Byron and Schubert—and hanging out with the undead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt)—Hiddleston and Swinton grace the silver screen across America this weekend. Twilight and True Blood fans need not apply here. Plot is irrelevant to “Only Lovers”—which is not to say that nothing happens—but this moody, atmospheric movie, which takes place entirely at night, looks to be a visual treat: an artist’s stylized meditation on love and art. Besides, who doesn’t want to be cool with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton for two hours?

– Elaine