Humor in a Jugular Vein
Jim Jarmusch and Tilda Swinton are known if not publically celebrated for odd independent choices. At their New York Film Festival press Q&A prior to its U.S. première, the director-writer needlessly pointed out that, about four vampires, Only Lovers Left Alive is not a horror film but a love story.
Today farther apart and more long-term than any others imaginable, the two lovers work as a couple because they complement each other. In Tangier -- Rome in early drafts ten years ago -- pale blonde leggy Eve (Swinton) is laissez-faire easy accepting in beige; brooding brunet Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is dark in Detroit, reclusive, secretive even to his supplier Ian (Anton Yelchin), negative about the path history has taken and pessimistic about the present controlled by heedless “Zombies.” She dances in joy at being here; he makes famous, increasingly funereal, music and hides.
Neither hunts for blood victims, in part because there are many contaminated humans out there. She gets pharmacie supplies of the red stuff through adored fellow creature Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), no longer young or physically beautiful like them but wise in his centuries. A “for all purposes antique” stethoscope topping off his disguise as Dr. Faust, Adam buys hospital blood from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), whose venality overcomes his being spooked by this “Dr. Strangelove.”
Concerned about her mate’s state of mind, she carries Kit’s greetings and takes night flights to the decaying Motor City, where they drive deserted streets, make love, talk about the fabled past and its long-dead famous, and feel each other out.
Jarmusch noted that over the cinema years the genre has added its garlic, running or holy water, silver bullets, necessary invitations to enter and such and that, not to be outdone, OLLA contributes its distinctive touch in the protagonists’ leather gloves.
Not merely tweaking the tradition, the film pays homage to, and plays on, it in subtle, possibly half- or un-conscious details that one’s antenna may quiver at. Style, color, throwaway incidents and music are essential, as in unaccountably maligned The Hunger, in oddball Cronos, in now-coming-into-its-own Ganja and Hess and its aka’s, even non-physical-bloodsuckers Performance. There is the felt presence of lived, remembered history from Swinton’s own four-hundred years gender bending in Orlando. And so on up to the bothersome game-changing baby sister of Xan Cassavetes’ unfortunate recent début Kiss of the Damned. And more.
One can imagine Eve and love conquering all, restoring her and Adam’s balance, reconciling her surly musician lover’s despair through the timelessness of non-Western culture and the true un-Zombie sensuousness of a female singer. But little sis does show up, young Ava (Mia Wasikowska) fresh in from L.A.
Cold-shouldered by Adam, tolerated, deep down loved by Eve in spite of, the unwelcome unexpected newcomer is all youth and frisky-colt vivacity, an outgoing party animal in colors, short skirts, sleeveless tops, not yet (if ever) experienced and thoughtful enough to be aware of the recklessness of her actions. She is not off the mark, however, in assessing sister and brother-in-law as “snobs.” It is not that the fires are banked or burn any less fiercely in the “older” couple but that, having lived and seen more -- seen it all, as it were -- they have the knowledge and restraint not to consume themselves, or, on the other hand, to do so if they consciously choose to.
Keeping a low profile, the three more aged outsiders observe and enjoy but do not kill or, though it lies within their discretionary powers, “turn,” that is, create others like themselves and thus perpetuate their kind. Thus The Vampire Lovers are free of the breed’s usual cinema curse of foul breath and eternal unhappiness. Having loved and chosen, like also-legendary Phoenix, “Wee dye and rise the same.”
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" by MPAA.)