Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive

2014, d. Jim Jarmusch

I think every true cinephile (well those fifty years or younger) goes through a Jim Jarmusch phase, usually when they're just discovering independent cinema and things other than what the Hollywood system shoves down our throats (don't get me wrong, I love a lot of that stuff too...).   The younger set are lucky, getting to consume his brief collection in short order, whereas the older set have to patiently await the next one.  His films are wondrously varied in genre but markedly similar in tone, so after consuming a certain amount of his work, it should be easy to dismiss whatever comes next. Yet, Jarmush's consistency in tone also leads to (for the most part) consistently interesting films.  The older guard may appreciate it as "more of the same" (not necessarily in a bad way) where a new cinephile will, no matter where they enter, find his films a revelatory experience.  It's easy to want more of his unique brand of low-key cinemanesthesia, that dry wit and the heady influence of alternative music that haven't wavered much in 35 years, particularly if you've never encountered it before.

Jarmusch, however, isn't a very prolific director.  On average he dishes out a new film every 4 years, and it seems like every other film of his is one of his best.  I came into Jarmusch through Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers (to me it seemed like these films all happened within a span of a couple years when it was in actuality ten years between them).  Ghost Dog was a particular centerpiece for me, the intersection of the world's sudden love affair with Asian cinema and the hip-hop reaching the apex of its silver age.  However despite being a quasi-sequel, his previous film to this one, The Limits of Control, I have yet to see.  To be honest, I thought Jarmusch had put out a sting of films I hadn't seen between Broken Flowers (2005) and Limits (2009) and even more since and that I just haven't been keeping track.  Turns out, yeah, he's done little else.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a fascinating beast.  Where Ghost Dog was his take on Samurai stories, Broken Flowers his romantic comedy, and Dead Man his western,  Lovers  is his vampire film, and it's totally his.  Tilda Swinton plays Eve, contentedly living in Tangier, embracing culture and socializing with her vampire friend Christopher Marlow (John Hurt).  Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives in Detroit, a reclusive alternative music folk hero engaging only with his runner Ian (Anton Yelchin).  Adam is spiraling into depression contemplating the state of the world, juxtaposing it against what he's known for decades and centuries past, and the increasing difficulty his people have staying hidden with the interference of modern technology has him borderline suicidal.  Eve rushes to his side, their evergreen romance helping bring him out of his darkness.

If the mere mention of Swinton and Hiddleston as both vampires and lovers doesn't seem to be the utmost perfect and obvious casting then you sir or madam have a genuine problem...because it's utter perfection.  The two of them seem like they're made for one another, natural partners that shouldn't ever be separated.  Their romance in the film is astounding, effortless even, and while it may not be as intoxicating as, say, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, it's also not that far off.  That they've been a couple for centuries is utterly believable, they have a shorthand with each other and a sense of all-knowing about the other, and yet they're still able to talk and share and experience life apart and together.  Adam takes Eve on many tours around Detroit, and this film acts as much as a vampiric love story as it does a documentary exploring the Motor City.  Jarmusch's lens finds true beauty in the wake of the city's fall from grace.  Adam's nostalgia for what it once was manages to bring life back to all the dead and run-down areas and buildings, of which there are a great many.

While the film could have easily languished solely on Adam and Eve's relationship and their tours of Detroit at night, the sudden (though not unexpected) arrival of Eve's precocious younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) propels the film forward with a frenetic energy.  Ava is a chaos agent, upsetting Adam's delicately balanced ecosystem, and Eve obviously has a hard time dismissing her family ties. It's through the opening (with Eva in Tangier and Adam in Detroit) and Eve's arrival that we learn both how the vampires live in modern society and also how dangerous and potentially "species"-threatening for them.  They are rapidly going extinct, drinkable, untainted blood becoming rare. Their survival is uncertain, with exposing themselves their last remaining option and an extremely dangerous one.

It's becoming increasingly rare to find a fresh or unique take on most sub-genres of horror, but by taking out the horrific elements and showing a more common, less glamorous and differently romantic take on them, Jarmusch has done exactly that.  I revel in the little touches, like Adam's fondness for the arcane technology (based of designs by Tesla). the grindy chamber music Adam doesn't want exposed, or the cameo role from Jeffrey Wright, which seem denser than any Jarmusch film past.  Though the pacing is totally expected from his ouvre, it's a beautiful and captivating exploration of both the real Detroit and the fiction of vampires.  It won't be for everyone but I quite loved it.

(Read David's Take here)