Is there a correct answer to the quandary presented by the title of American director Jim Jarmusch's latest film? The invocations of romanticism presented by Only Lovers Left Alive fit in just perfectly with all of the recent work by the veteran of the US' truly independent film scene; over the past two decades, he has been quietly amassing a series of hyper-romantic elegies for a mythical "state of the art" that has been slowly vanishing from under his feet. Ever since the regretful zen noir of the glorious Ghost Dog, nearly all of the director's films have been hushed laments for what once was and no longer can be (none more so, maybe, than his most high-profile work in a long time, Broken Flowers).
The metaphor could not be plainer than in Only Lovers Left Alive, whose nominal heroes are vampires, the eternal undead; only Mr. Jarmusch's vampires, portrayed soulfully by the ever wondrous Tilda Swinton and a surprising Tom Hiddleston, are aristocrats. They're a vanishing breed of artful, understated elegance, the essence of what makes mankind human distilled into a purity of blood, a generosity of gaze, an attention to detail; all of it setting this genteel elite apart from the "illiterate zombie philistines" condemned to short, miserable lives and unable to appreciate the beauty and art of all that surrounds them.
It might seem the recipe for a nihilistic, reactionary rant against the passing of the time and the dying of the light; but there's hardly anything nihilistic or reactionary in the film, thanks to Mr. Jarmusch's trademark wry, self-deprecating, self-aware humour. Eve and Adam, his undead heroes, seem to revel in the quiet domesticity of a long-time couple (there are times where Only Lovers Left Alive seems like a nocturnal, subversive sitcom), enjoy long drives at night, affect a numbed, too-cool-for-school existence, seem to live in a cloistered world of their own. Their paradise is a decrepit Detroit mansion, a haven from which the unstoppable lust of Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska, playing the snake) eventually chases them. And, when push comes to shove, even these aesthetes that seem to hover above us will allow their animal nature to come to the fore.
Does all of this make Only Lovers Left Alive a mere tongue-in-cheek provocation or a sincerely genuine proposition? Personally, I think it the latter, its elegy for what was and the need to move forward climaxing at the impossibly romantic ending that reminds me (improbably, yes, I know) of John Wayne's graveside talks in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Regardless, this is a spellbinding, masterful work, a slow-motion love story guided with infinite elegance by Mr. Jarmusch's hyper-classic handling, hypnotising the viewer through the layered electrics of Jozef van Wissem's score (with contributions from the director's own rock band, Sqürl) and the hushed, earthy nocturnal tones of Yorick le Saux's murky cinematography. These vampires who remain desperately in love against all odds are, like all of Mr. Jarmusch's heroes, the art lovers, the misfits, the freaks, the people struggling to survive in a world that seems to no longer appreciate what living is worth. That they are the undead is yet another smart, self-aware wink in a film whose nooks and crannies are a who's who of what's what in pop culture.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
United Kingdom, Germany, USA, Greece, France 2013
Cast Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi, John Hurt
Director and writer Jim Jarmusch; cinematographer Yorick le Saux (colour); composer Jozef van Wissem; additional music by Sqürl; designer Marco Bittner Rosser; costumes Bina Daigeler; editor Affonso Gonçalves; producers Jeremy Thomas and Reinhard Brundig; production companies Recorded Picture Company, Pandora Film and Snow Wolf Productions in co-production with ARD-Degeto, Lago Film and Neue Road Movies Filmproduktion, in association with Faliro House Productions, Le Pacte and Hanway Films
Screened May 27th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon