Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, 2 hrs 3 mins)
As a Torontonian to the end, I will go on the record when I state that I have a love-hate relationship with TIFF, aka The Toronto International Film Festival. I loved it when it was a smaller affair, attracting eccentric movie buffs that had interesting opinions on interesting films. While I think the attention my fair city gets these days is great, I do take issue with all the star chasing, gala hopping hoopla that is now covered by Instyle and Vanity Fair, but it seems it is here to stay. As a result, I rarely go to any movies at the festival. I can’t take the posturing from rabid fans and wannabe industry hangers-on, the line-ups or the general nonsense that is part and parcel with TIFF, rather waiting to watch most of the buzz-worthy titles in the comfort of my own home. The one film I wanted to venture out to see during last year’s festival was Only Lovers Left Alive, but I never actually made it to the theatre, so here is my review, one year later, ironically on the last day of the 2014 season of TIFF.
Jim Jarmusch is an interesting man. I don’t claim to be an expert on him by any means, but films like Stranger Than Paradise and The Limits of Control left me loving the feel and scope of his vision, getting an almost artistic buzz after watching them. My favourite Jarmusch film hands down is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. This quiet film brings a sense of beauty and zen to the assassin, and he does the same for the vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is an innovative musician who is also a reclusive vampire. He lives in a secluded, tear-down of a house in the tear-down city of Detroit, and with the help of a human Ian (Anton Yelchin) for music supplies, and a jumpy hospital lab tech (Jeffery Wright) for his blood supply, he is able to exist with little disturbance. Melancholy seems to rule his life of late, making him contemplate his existence and his disdain for humans, or “zombies” that are destroying the world. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his wife and at the moment, she lives in Tangiers. She is a sensual being, soaking up books and atmosphere, and seems to be content with getting “the good stuff”, or choice blood, from non other than the 16th century poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe himself (John Hurt), who has survived the ages as a vampire. They are all satisfied with sipping their blood from tiny sherry glasses because they are far too civilized to hunt their human meals. After a disturbing video chat with Adam, Eve comes to Detroit to check in on him. Adam and Eve appear to the outsider as the coolest junkie couple you will ever meet, wearing shades at night to shroud themselves from the everyman. They are the ones that if you engage, you just may be in a heap of trouble, but their seduction is irresistible. They proceed to chill out in true vamp style and live an introvert’s dream; reading, debating philosophy, playing music, getting their blood fix and sleeping in a heap like sophisticated feral junkie children, until Eve’s bratty sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up, throwing a wrench in their well oiled machine of solitude.
Sound boring? Perhaps a tad Anne Rice-y and formulaic? Well it’s not. Jarmusch is known for making films of a slower, more contemplative pace and what he creates here is a sweeping and moody anti-horror movie. With a beautiful colour palette and the comfort of cluttered sets, he wraps you in a cocoon of an introverted, isolated world that only the characters and the viewers understand. But make no mistake. There are plenty of intellectual inside jokes and lots of dry humour that still makes this a classic Jarmusch film.
His “casting” of Detroit as a backdrop was genius for this particular story. It mirrors the life the vampire couple used to have, a life of innovation and progress that becomes antiquated as the world forgets and moves on. Adam has fans that seem to personify the hipster fueled gentrification, a tainted blood that tries to pump life into an ancient body. It’s a world where the “zombies” defile artifacts of a glorious past. Pay attention to the scoring too, but not only because Jarmusch wants you to. The director and musician creates Adam’s spacey compositions with his band SQURL, and the action is accented by the beautifully enchanting and dreamy sounds of the lute from composer Jozef van Wissem, who won best score for the film at Cannes in 2013.
And I must talk about Tilda Swinton. I think you all know how much I love her. She is like a gorgeous alien who can morph into any character. From her style to her attitude, she is truly mesmerizing. Her waifishly sleek Eve was calm and calculating; glowing on the screen like an alabaster phantom. Tom Hiddleston was lazily lethal and brooded with a Jim Morrison-esque intensity, and I loved the reference to Christopher Marlowe, whom John Hurt played so well. Honourable mention goes to Anton Yelchin as Ian, who exuded a sweet naivety and obedience that amplified Wasikowska’s predatory and petulant Ava. The costuming and sets were beautifully done, from the rock star vampire tousled hair to the retro-modern wardrobe; from Eve’s walk-up in Tangiers to Adam’s old school recording studio complete with beautiful vintage guitars and a faded red velvet divan fit for any aging rock star, and all of this captured by D.O.P. Yorick Le Saux who meticulously frames each scene to give us precise shots that are pleasing to the eye. This is a thinker’s vampire film, with nary a CGI effect, save for some fangs and fast hands. If you want to step outside of the horror box, I’d suggest Ganja and Hess, Kiss of the Damned, and Only Lovers Left Alive for an interesting triple feature to experience indie vampirism at it’s best.
As a pixie who has often been called a vampire because I don’t look my age (yet…) and as someone who has had to examine her own mortality more than once due to very unfortunate circumstances, Only Lovers Left Alive was very poignant for me. Their desire to stay under the radar and not bring any attention to themselves as life marches on is betrayed by an ultimate longing, bringing them together to steel against an impending doom. When faced with the question “Is this all there is?”, Adam and Eve give us solace in knowing that yes, maybe “this” is it, but enjoying the moment before it becomes a memory is our mortal goal.