Vampires Are Cool Again

Only Lovers Left Alive
(UK/Germany, 123 min.)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright.
Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam.
Photo by Sandro Kopp, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Forget Team Edward and forget Team Jacob. Team Tilda and Team Hiddles have come to save the day for vampire fans and they mop the floor with Bella Swan and all of Twilight’s bedazzled emo pining. Jim Jarmusch reinvents the vampire film with Only Lovers Left Alive and the result is a groovy and gothically atmospheric romance. Vampires are cool again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is genre revisionism at its best since Jarmusch crafts less a vampire movie and more an art film with vampires. There isn’t much in terms of horror per se, but Only Lovers Left Alive puts the nightcrawlers in their element: Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, are centuries’ old vampires lurking in the shadows to survive. They live an eclectic life, feasting on music and literature in between glasses of human blood. The sequences in which the vampires sip from the cups of eternal life are groovy trips with the vampires rolling back as the camera tilts with them in a kind of woozy ecstasy. They might as well be sipping absinthe.

Only Lovers Left Alive, like many a good vampire pic, puts an ageless romance at the root of its story as Adam and Eve fulfill their search for human blood. The film begins with the lovers separated—she’s in Tangiers and he’s in Detroit—and crosscuts the two in a kind of union as they each navigate the nightlife of their exotic settings and slake their thirst in unsuspecting ways. Vampires, in the age of Only Lovers Left Alive, can’t feast on humans the old-fashioned way by sinking their fangs into human flesh and leaving bodies with bite marks for people to find. (“In the old days we could just throw them into the Thames,” says Eve in one moment of hilariously ingenious cover-up.) Eve gets the good stuff from her fellow vampire Marlowe (John Hurt) while Adam gets O-negative vintages from a doctor at the local hospital (Jeffrey Wright), but a twilight phone session puts Eve on a night flight to Detroit so they may sip together.

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) gives the bohemian lifestyle of these two lovers a playful spin. There isn’t much out of the ordinary to Adam and Eve’s freewheeling and arty ways, aside from the fact that they’re vampires. Their experience as vampires, though, gives them centuries’ worth of cultural savviness. They’re like a pair of uber-hipsters with their mangy, ratty hair (which looks as if it hasn’t been washed since Victoria sat on the throne), and their appreciation for vintage threads, tunes, and baubles.

Eve is a seemingly endless repository of cultural trivia while Adam is especially fond of old-school appliances. Jarmusch, however, shapes the antiquated ways of the vampires into some kind of ideal cultural renaissance. Eve’s archive of eclectic know-how makes her akin to a member of the literati (her habit of preserving books in the refrigerator is a nice touch) and Adam’s way of infusing the old with the new fashions their living space into a steam-punkish haven of coolness. The film is likewise inflected with subtle literary reference points, such as Adam and Eve’s aliases of Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan, and a great running gag pitting Marlow and Shakespeare as a conspiracy of vampire lore. The cultural references just as funny as Adam’s droll quips about zombies, for one cannot tell if he refers to folk like the grungy Ian (played by Aton Yelchin) as literal zombies or if he uses the term a pejorative for the brain-dead masses. Vampires are culture vultures with their fondness for arts and flesh alike.

The playful subtlety of the film’s reinvention of vampire lore works best, though, in Jarmusch’s inspired extension of the groovy classicism of the vampires into the settings and atmosphere of Only Lovers Left Alive. The film plays out in the deteriorating ruins of Tangiers and Detroit, and the use of location unites the Gothicism and romanticism inherent in vampire lore. As Adam and Eve take ample night drives around Detroit, Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I am Love) accentuate the murky shadows of the dilapidated motor city with breathtaking awe. Eve predicts that the city will flourish again one day, for her appreciation of culture and the spiritual element of things extends to the life of the city itself, and the city seems like a natural habitat for these hip vampires as it becomes a haven for artists setting up shop in the city’s inexpensive remains. Detroit itself feels like the walking dead as Adam and Eve admire the remnants of a once great city—a trip to an opulent theatre, now a car park, accentuates the decrepit beauty the ghost town—and the eerie desolation of Detroit furthers the sense that Adam and Eve are indeed the only lovers left alive.
Swinton and Hiddleston are incredibly fun as the vampires. Swinton gets a friskier part as Eve and the role caters perfectly to her inherent weirdness and coolness. She looks the part with her pale skin and wispy figure, and she embodies a spirited timelessness in her performance as Eve entrances with her worldly vibe. Swinton is subtly hilarious and Only Lovers Left Alive features one of her coolest performances yet. Hiddleston, on the other hand, gets to do a healthy dose of brooding as Adam, which plays into the angsty persona of dashing vampire leads in the age of Twilight, but he makes it work with by playing it straight alongside Swinton’s drollness and showing that he is full well on the joke. Equally fun are Hurt as Marlowe and Mia Wasikowska as Eve’s reckless sister Ava. Vampire films haven’t had a cast this good since, well, ever.

Only Lovers Left Alive proves that vampires are still an immortal pair of big screen lovers. Jarmusch resurrects the beguiling charm of vampire films by delivering a flick that is content to be an anomaly amidst the mania of mass entertainment. The film dispenses with clichés and injects a surprising humanity—and humour—to a corner of film that seemed all but exhausted. Only Lovers Left Alive teases audiences for a full bite until its final frame, and the big toothy smiles of Adam and Eve will have viewers’ blood racing once again.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Only Lovers Left Alive  is now in theatres from Mongrel Media.
It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until May 25th and opens at The Mayfair on Friday, June 13.