From the very first opening titles, written in a Germanic font that immediately conjures everything from “Triumph of the Will” to images of big-busted ladies screaming in campy close-up in 1970s cheapie horrors (it may be the only time in Cannes that a film got a big laugh for a typeface) it’s perfectly clear that the Jim Jarmusch in whose company we’re about to spend a couple of hours is not the wilfully obscure surrealist of “The Limits of Control,” nor the considered, melancholic philosopher behind “Dead Man,” nor even the oddball ragtag troubadour of “Down By Law.” In fact, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jarmusch’s take on the vampire myth starring recent muse Tilda Swinton and Tom “fast becoming everyone’s favorite actor” Hiddleston, finds the maverick filmmaker in playful, referential and mischievous form with hugely enjoyable, if not exactly weighty or important, results. It’s an offbeat, fun, and frequently very funny film, lifted out of disposability by some wonderfully rich production design, music cuts and photography, and by the cherishable performances of the leads. It’s also, bearing in mind the director’s recent output, by far the most accessible film he’s made in a while, albeit still a tad on the languid side for many, with its genre roots allowing the director to give full rein to his inherent weirdness within a comprehensible context, thereby not necessarily losing half the audience in befuddlement.
Adam and Eve (the first and perhaps flattest of the many nomenclature gags that happen in the film) are a married vampires who have been deeply and touchingly in love for centuries. Separated at the start of the film for no directly explained reason, Adam is in Detroit indulging a secretive passion for composing and playing music, visited only by a handy local fixer called Ian (Anton Yelchin) who procures old classic guitars, wooden bullets and whatever else Adam needs. Eve is in Tangier, close by her old friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), yes, that Kit Marlowe, who is a vampire himself (and did of course write all of Shakespeare’s works). But sensing Adam is sinking into a depression, Eve arranges the tricky business of winging to his side. Tricky, because it all has to be done at night, and, reluctant to kill “zombies” (which is what they call people) more out of fear of contaminated blood than inherent respect for life, they are reliant on blood supplied by local hospitals and bribed doctors. Reunited, they bicker and spar gently but take care of each other through a series of small episodes, until Eve’s “sister” Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes to stay and, stirs up the same kind of trouble that had caused them not to have seen her for 87 years.
Wasikowska’s role is small but she’s a pleasure as the petulant and mercurial Ava. Yelchin too has a great time as Ian, nailing the film’s gently loopy tone, and Jeffrey Wright manages to make his two short scenes count. But the film is really about Adam and Eve, and Hiddlestone and Swinton are so good, and so well-matched, that their love story is surprisingly romantic and sexy. It’s also really good to look at, with Swinton maybe more luminous than she’s been since “Orlando,” often posed with Hiddleston in a kind of beautiful tangle of alabaster limbs, and the richness of the set design and costuming giving every frame a depth and warmth that rewards in itself. Add to that a terrific score that in its twangy electric guitar chords reminded us of Neil Young’s work on “Dead Man” and some choice songs, including a truly mesmerising track at the very end of the film sung seemingly live, and the film certainly comes handsomely dressed.
But it’s the deadpan jokes and references that really lift the proceedings, especially as delivered, often drily, by Tilda Swinton, who’s probably as good at being funny as she is at everything else, but is so rarely given the chance. So, despite being an ages-old vampire with oceans of wisdom at her disposal she gets girlishly excited to drive past Jack White’s childhood home (kind of the unlikeliest Jack White fan ever), teases Adam about hanging out with Byron, and semi-cheats at chess, and gets to deliver, with utter drollery the classic line “Well, that was visual” after we’ve watched a body dissolve down to a bleached skeleton in a pit of acid. Mostly, though, Jarmusch has just littered the script with nods to everything from mathematics to literature to filmmaking — Adam is variously called Doctor Faust, Doctor Strangelove, Doctor Caligari, and Stephen Dedalus, while Eve books flights for herself in the name of Fibonacci at one point and, in a gag that played well in a festival opened by “The Great Gatsby,” Daisy Buchanan at another. None of the names really mean anything, or stand for anything, and if there is a higher theme we’re supposed to derive from the cavalcade of classical and modern cultural references, we’re damned if we can find it. Which in itself is sort of refreshing — Jarmusch’s film is just pretentious enough for there to be lots of opportunities to for us to snort in recognition, as in “Why yes, I know that, that’s the lead character in ‘Ulysses’!” but not so pretentious that it expects us to actually have read it. It’s hipster-shallow, to be sure, but it makes it a delightfully easy watch.
Which is not to say there aren’t some thematic throughlines for those who want to search for them. The value of “putting work out there” is mentioned frequently in the context of both Adam’s music, which he paradoxically desires to have out in the world, but fears the inevitable fame and recognition, and Kit Marlowe, the fruits of whose creativity are omnipresent, but under another man’s name. The cultured, cool vampires’ disdain for the “zombies,” along with dark hints at how they/we have “polluted” or “contaminated’ ourselves somehow hint at some slight social comment on humankind’s self-destructive tendencies, though we’re probably reaching on that one. No, the real pleasure of the film is in its languid droll cool and its romantic portrayal of the central couple, who are now our number one role models in the inevitable event of us turning vampiric. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.