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Only Lovers Left Alive

Traditional vampire mythology meets Jim Jarmusch's distinctively aloof brand of cool.
By Tom Clift
April 14, 2014
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By Tom Clift
April 14, 2014
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The 21st-century has not been kind to the vampire. Between Stephenie Meyer's sparkling high schoolers, the leather-clad killers of the Underworld series and whatever the hell those things in I Am Legend were meant to be, the once noble creatures of the night have been reduced by pop-culture to cringeworthy caricatures. Bela Lugosi must be turning in his grave.

Enter Jim Jarmusch, director of Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers, to name just a few. One of the enduring figures of the American indie film movement, Jarmusch has made a career out of minimally plotted, post-modern genre subversions, and his latest work is no exception. Mixing traditional vampire mythology with the director's distinctively aloof brand of cool, Only Lovers Left Alive is a handsome, compelling, meditative take on the lives of the eternal undead.

An appropriately gaunt and pasty Tom Hiddleston plays Adam, a centuries-old bloodsucker living on the outskirts of Detroit. A reclusive figure, Adam's only human contacts are a crooked hospital doctor (Jeffrey Wright) who provides him with fresh batches of O-negative, and a wide-eyed rock 'n' roll fan (Anton Yelchin) from whom the vampire buys vintage guitars. Aside from his music, the one thing Adam cares about is his wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), with whom he is reunited not long after the movie begins. For a while, the immortal lovers live in peace, only to find their solitary existence shattered by the arrival of Eve's impulsive younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).

Like many of Jarmusch's films, Only Lovers moves along at a languid pace, with large stretches of the movie unfolding in which very little actually happens. Nevertheless, viewers willing to give the film their patience will be rewarded by its rich, intoxicating atmosphere. Synonymous both with rock 'n' roll and America's crumbling economy, Detroit's empty streets and abandoned buildings are the perfect stalking ground for Jarmusch's silent camera, which finds an eerie kind of beauty in moonlit vistas of urban decay. Electronic guitar chords flow despondently across the soundtrack, ringing in perfect harmony with the images projected on the screen.

The protagonists are drawn with fascinating detail. Late-night musings, on music, art, science and the various historical figures that Adam and Eve once knew, are underlined by a sardonic sense of humour, informed by centuries of bitterness and disappointment. Detached from the world around them, there's an air of tortured disinterest to the duo, like ageing rock stars, or unkillable hipsters (and isn't that a terrifying concept?)

Emphasising mood over story, Only Lovers Left Alive is the cinematic equivalent of one of Adam's melancholic rock songs. It washes over you, absorbing through your skin. Jarmusch has brought dignity back to the vampire, in his own unmistakable style.

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