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Sundance: Only Lovers Left Alive

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive.

Tom & Tilda - who needs neck pillows travelling when you have each other

Before Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive I would have gladly placed a moratorium on all vampire films. Beyond the exhausting cultural ubiquity of the undead, Tom Alfredson’s masterpiece, Let the Right One In appeared to be the final word on the sub-genre for the foreseeable future. What was left to say after that?

I should’ve known better.  All it takes is the synopsis “Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in a vampire movie by Jim Jarmusch” to remind one that there is new life to be found in any song, provided that the singer is right. [more...

Only Lovers barely touches on the tropes of the vampire mythology. Bats, crosses and wooden stakes are nowhere to be found. Rather, Jarmusch’s film is interested in vampires as a state of mind. What becomes of a being when life has no meaning because it never ends? The film doesn’t stack up urgent plot points so much as it sinks slowly into its atmosphere of sexy gloom. Whether or not you like the film depends on if you can meet it on its wavelength. Personally, I had no trouble getting into the proper groove right from the start. 

Tom and Tilda play present day husband and wife vampires named Adam and Eve who have been married since time immemorial and currently live apart on separate continents. Adam lives in a state of deep brooding in his Detroit flat, which is as ornately decorated as a Detroit flat is probably capable of being. He spends his days recording hard rock dirges, and toying with the idea of using a silver bullet on himself and just being done with the boredom of it all.  At times the only things separating him from a melodramatic teenager are a better sense of style and a lack of bad poetry. Out of desperation Adam begs Eve to return to his side and rescue him from this eternal funk.

You would not be wrong if you guessed that Tilda could ooze charisma with little more than some dark glasses and a severe look. That Hiddleston matches her in the screen presence department is no mean feat. In lesser hands these roles would have resulted in one tremendous, feature-length sulk, but Tom and Tilda turn it into a master class in lethargic rock star cool.

As effortlessly watchable as the two leads are the big revelation is Mia Wasikowska as Ava, an estranged vampire relative who blasts into the film around the halfway point just when the Fifty Shades of Mope act is wearing thin. Ava has little patience with elaborate displays of Gothic melancholy and demands to be entertained, threatens to eat people she shouldn’t and generally trashes the joint. I was unsold on Wasikowska as a movie star before now, but this performance turned me into a believer. It’s a star part that any actor would kill for and Mia makes a meal of it.

Grade: B+
Yes. Opens April 11th in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics


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Reader Comments (6)

I groaned a little at the way the movie kept pushing the "drug addiction = vampirism" thing that felt about twenty years warmed-over, but otherwise everything you said - Tllda and Tom are super cool and Mia's so much fun. It's worn well in retrospect more than I expected to, I've been wanting to see it again lately. (Saw it at NYFF in the Fall.) The spectre of Detroit hanging over the film is gorgeous, too.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJA

I saw this at the BFI LFF and was struck by a few things. First, I wanted to spend more time with these characters past lives (so to speak). Second, there was a weird and somewhat intriguing theme of "(white) vampires as decadent imperialists" that I'm not sure was intentional and self-critical or an uncomfortable oversight. For example, in Detroit, Adam and Eve go on and on about the abandonment of the city, touring its decaying monumental symbols of status and money. Meanwhile, we see no people of color. The Detroit sequence therefore played for me like a white hipster paradise (not dissimilar from New Orleans): (largely white, middle class) people daydream about it's abandonment while reclaiming it for themselves and spending no time thinking about the people who once (or still) live(d) there and why things change in certain places and for certain reasons. The sequences in Algiers are more obviously "white British people living decadent lifestyles in 'the East'" that relies pretty heavily on imperial nostalgia, complete with the dangerous whispering brown men and the empowered and well-adorned white woman. I don't bring this up to denigrate the film, which I did find generally interesting and watchable. And clearly I found lots of food for thought, thinking about what exactly was being said about this privileged world of decadence in which these characters lived. I couldn't tell if it was was the point or if it was missing the point. I am looking forward to having another chance to see it and re-evaluate. While like you I loved Swinton I'm not as convinced that Hiddleston rose above the limitations of the character (damn sexy but OBNOXIOUS. Although I would heartily give 5 stars for his Q&A performance, which was as dreamy, open and free with his time and energy as you could hope from a movie star but was sadly the exception rather than the rule at the festival). I sort of couldn't help but wonder what Fassbender would have done, for instance. I was less surprised by Mia than by Yelchin, whom I found surprising in his absent-minded grungy loserdom. Thanks for your review, I'm glad to start hearing things about this movie.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

I'm really excited for this. It actually sounds a lot like We Are the Night, a German vampire film from a couple years ago (albeit with less action, I presume). That film also zeroed in on state of mind as altered by the creation of a vampire, but used four vampires at various stage of immortality (from French Revolution to Jazz Age to Disco to modern times) to show the transformation caused by the routine and cynicism of not being able to die or live a normal life.

It also sounds like that opening stretch of The Hunger where Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are just circling each other and their various victims in their gorgeous home, with no real excitement to speak of.

And I'm just going to say that Mia Wasikowska can't be a revelation in every horror film she does. It's impossible. If she was a revelation in Jane Eyre and a revelation in Stoker, how can she be a revelation again in Only Lovers Left Alive? She's good for the genre because she's very expressive and has that kind of blank canvas beauty that lets her believable adopt multiple personas without question. Too bad she's stuck doing that Alice in Wonderland sequel.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I saw this months ago and I'm dying to see it again. I'm thisclose to declaring it a masterpiece. Such a clever twist on vampirism and romantic yet grounded analysis of eternal love and the true pleasures of life. Perfectly stylised, brilliant screenplay, direction, production design and music. I must admit I was less enamored with the actors though. I don't think anyone else could have possibly done a better job than they did. No, they were perfect. But the effect of the characters is created by Jarmusch more than by their performances.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMYS

Tom Hiddleston is my favorite "new guy". The casting of Hiddleston and Swinton together sounds more like a wish list than a real thing, especially with Jarmusch added into the mix.

I haven't been lucky enough to see this yet, but look forward to it.

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

This is a unique film and there are a number of ways to interpret it - it operates on different levels. The cast is wonderful. I have to say that nothing surprises me when it comes to Mia Wasikowska - she is absolutely brilliant, almost scary talented. I've thought so since "In Treatment", she just keeps coming up with different, astonishing performances.

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrandon

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