I heard the term ‘experiential’ in a film review once. Don’t read anything about the movie, the reviewer urged. You have to “experience” it first.
And by Jove, I think I just encountered such a beast, an experiential film! And existential too. This is Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”, a film about, well… vampires and ennui and stagnation and rock’n’roll… You may want to see this film because of it’s extreme nerd-cred – Loki, the White Witch, the Angel Gabriel, Pavel Chekov, Doctor Who, Alice-in-Wonderland and Beetee are all starring in it! (Or their actors, at any rate.)
If you thought Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog and Deadman were slow, well, wait for this one! And if you like tight and elegant plots, this may not be your cup of tea. The film is more like a long and meandering series of conversations. But it does drip with atmosphere and captures a moment of time in the lives of its main characters before their lives are shaken up.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are vampires. They live in separate cities – Adam, in the urban decay of Detroit, and Eve in Tangiers. Adam is a musician who collects instruments and is surrounded by cutting edge ’70s technology and recording equipment. His only friend is Isaac (Anton Yelchin) who shows up every now and then with new musical instruments for Adam’s collection.
Meanwhile Eve spends her time in Tangiers, hanging with vampiric Christopher Marlowe, who used William Shakespeare as a front to publish his own writings. Both Adam and Eve get their blood from blood-banks (where Adam briefly encounters the delightfully cynical ‘Doctor Watson’ – Jeffrey Wright in a nifty cameo), and when they drink the stuff, there’s a sense of them getting high; they smile, space out and their fangs are clearly visible. Adam has nothing but contempt for humanity; he calls them ‘zombies’ even as he lives apart from them, and only has affection for the exceptional people he has associated with over his long life, such as Nikola Tesla.
In fact, Adam so distracted from life that he is thinking about suicide. He gets Isaac to make him a wooden bullet (some sort of dense hardwood, shelled in brass) to fit in his .38 and poses with the gun over his heart. (Van Helsing would have found that very helpful.) Adam rings up Eve, tells her of his depression, and she flies over on a series of convenient night flight to meet him. They have various long and rambling conversations, where the audiences catch glimpses of their long lives. Then, Eve’s sister (Mia Wasikowska) shows up; disturbing their routines and forcing Adam to flee with Eve back to Tangiers to build a new life there, only for yet another rung to be pulled out from under them.
As vampires, they’re all essentially parasites on humanity, which Adam doesn’t acknowledge at all. He loathes ordinary people, including the ‘rock n’ roll’ kids that seek him out, trying to learn more about Adam from the music that Isaac’s leaked onto the scene. Eve calls herself a survivor, but they don’t really have a lot of back-up plans when things go wrong for them – no alternative blood supplies or other identities they can quickly step into. They live in a sort of dream-like stasis with no real end or beginning.
There’s not a lot of action in the movie; it’s conversations between immortals. It’s a series of character studies. Adam is brooding and morbid, taking only pleasure in long drives through Detroit’s decaying urban landscape which reflects his inner world. He’s very high-maintenance as a husband too; Eve has to drop everything she was comfortable with to visit Adam in his depths of ennui. Eve is more visceral, taking pleasure in the old books and the natural world. This is reflected by the vitality and vibrancy of the Tangiers scenes, in comparison to the emptiness of Detroit by night. Ava, in her brief, by lively appearance, is more of a party-girl, enjoying blood and music and second-to-second living.
The film is expertly shot and directed, with lots of spinning motifs – perhaps to suggest both Adam’s love of vinyl records, or their circular eternity that the vampires find themselves in. Adam wears black, whereas Eve favours white.
The film’s vampiric lore isn’t spelled out, unlike other films which have more sparkling vampires. They need blood to survive but must avoid contaminated blood. It looks like it plays fairly close to movie vampiric lore conventions (rather than Bram Stoker’s novel). Wooden stakes (and bullets) are fatal to these vampires and they must sleep in sunlight. They wear gloves and sunglasses at night (perhaps they’re hyper-sensitive?) and there are some suggestions that each of the vampires has special powers – Adam has some sort of super-science ability (he’s got one of Tesla’s weird science experiments working), Eve can tell the age of items at a touch, and Ava can send her dreams to others.
The sense of claustrophobic darkness in Detroit (we never see the sunlight there) captures the ennui of Adam’s life quite expertly, and is only shaken up to a more primal phase when Ava crosses his path. Adam spends his life making music, but doesn’t want to release it on the world and shuns the “rock’n’roll” kids that try and seek him out. Eve is a more interesting character – she descibes herself as a survivor and Tilda Swinton plays her with an eerie, otherworldly, almost predatory edge. By contrast, Adam is a typical goth; dark clothing, wasted appearance, hair hanging over his eyes.
The music is interesting; a brooding rock that carries its themes quite well. I liked it, but wouldn’t want to see it again in a hurry. I still think it’s worth seeing, particularly if you are keen on the dark edge of the music scene or really want to get a taste of how long and meaningless the lives of vampires can be.