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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

The Return of Vampire Chic

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Vampires have been done to death. Director Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise) obviously wants to have a bit of fun with the genre in Only Lovers Left Alive, even running the opening credits in Gothic typeface. However, the film’s humor plays in an entirely different key than spoof. With Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in the lead roles, Jarmusch assembled the most elegant undead couple since David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. As the title suggests, it’s a love story—a moving ode to undying devotion. And to top it off, a minor chord of apocalypse sounds softly throughout, harmonizing with the more obvious subtext of social decay. The vampire couple at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive are smarter, maybe even more ethical, than most of the living.

Jarmusch structures his film brilliantly, leading the story by gradual steps into the world of Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton). Many minutes elapse before we realize that they are vampires who prefer blood purchased from physicians than preying on strangers; more time goes by before we learn that they are married, despite living apart on separate continents. Perhaps distance allows their love to flourish. They are an old married couple after all—centuries old.

As in many successful relationships, their personalities are a study in complementary contrast. Eve is bright and full of unlife in her brocaded apartment in the Tangier Kasbah, while Adam broods in his crumbling Victorian home in Detroit. She blames his Heathcliff sulkiness on “Byron, Shelly and some of those French assholes he used to hang around with.” Eve speed reads in several languages and pals around with Shakespeare’s rival, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), a vampire posing as a British expatriate writer in Morocco, and has an irresponsible tease of a sister (Mia Wasikowska) she tries to avoid. Adam, who once ghostwrote a quartet for Schubert, is a reclusive rock star, recording on reel-to-reel and attended by a faithful runner (Anton Yelchin) who procures rare vinyl for him along with a vintage guitar collection Jack White would envy.

The potential problem? Eve wants to live forever while Adam has sunk into ennui. He commissioned his runner to find a wooden bullet, which would serve the same purpose as a stake through the heart in earlier epochs.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a literate hipsters’ delight, replete with references to 1905 Gibson guitars, the Faust legend and the aesthetic rivalry between ’60s soul music record labels. “I’m more a Stax girl myself,” Eve responds when Adam suggests the Motown Museum when Eve visits Detroit. Tangier seems full of life while Detroit is a perfect stand-in for Transylvania. The old neighborhoods are overgrown with trees and weeds, wild animals howl in the night and the walls of abandoned auto plants are as forbidding as the Carpathian Mountains.

Hiddleston and Swinton are entirely convincing, made up to look ancient yet ageless as they sip blood like fine red wine from crystal goblets. They watch with dismay from their comfortable twilight as the “zombies,” as they call average, unimaginative human folks, make a worse and worse mess of the world.