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To Die For: Swinton and Hiddleston in Jarmusch's 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

by Caryn James
April 10, 2014 10:12 PM
1 Comment
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Swinton Hiddleston

The camera swirls in circles overhead as Tilda Swinton lies sprawled on a bed, long platinum hair splayed around her, wearing an extravagantly beautiful black and gold robe. From that sumptuous early image, it's clear that Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual departure from Jim Jarmusch's minimalist approach and affection for black and white. But it doesn't take long to see that his droll attitude has only been enhanced in this wry yet emotional story of Adam and Eve, two perfectly cast vampires in everlasting love. Only Lovers Left Alive is a brilliant, magical combination: at once pure Jarmusch and entirely new.  

The role of Eve seems tailored to Swinton, with her natural pallor and her air of pure disaffection that can suddenly flash with the fiercest look. Eve lives in exotic Tangier, and gets the best blood from her friend, the aging vampire Christopher Marlowe, played by the aging John Hurt. (How and why vampires grow old here is a mystery, but not a bothersome one.) No matter how many centuries he lives,  Marlowe will never let go of his resentment that Shakespeare gets credit for his work.

Tom Hiddleston, better known as the golden-haired Loki from the Thor movies, is the wonderful surprise here as Adam. With long black hair falling over one eye and a rocker's clothes, he may be the coolest vampire ever, an updated model of a Romantic poet with a tortured soul. A composer who collects vintage guitars (he's a vampire, they seem new to him) he lives in a dilapidated house in Detroit, where the photos on his wall reveal his dark view of life and Jarmusch's humor: Kafka, Poe, Rodney Dangerfield.

Adam is retro, while Eve is more modern. She calls him on her iPhone, but there isn't much in his house that seems younger than the 1980's, including the big-tube TV that somehow lets them video-chat. He's in black; she usually in pale, neutral colors that match her hair and skin. They're Yin and Yang.  

As in so many Jarmusch films, there is a mere thread of a plot, which works perfectly well. Eve visits from Tangier, hoping to cheer Adam up. In Detroit they have a surprise visit from her kid sister (Mia Wasikowska), a wild child who argued with them 87 years ago in Paris. Adam buys blood at a hospital -- they are civilized vampires, whenever possible -- doing the black-market deal using fake names, including Dr. Faust and Dr. Caligari.

But the film's premise is more than an excuse for droll references. Typical genre films exploit vampires for their horror value. Jarmusch has acknowledged using them metaphorically, as social outsiders, but that short-changes how deeply he peers into the souls.

Living on the fringes of society for all eternity becomes an existential crisis.  Marlowe says of Adam, "I wish I'd met him before I wrote Hamlet," and he would have been the perfect model. Adam doesn't say "to be or not to be," but he does contrive to buy a suicidal wooden bullet. The film is all about his will to go on -- or not. Maybe love, even the love of a vampire like Eve,  isn't enough. Or maybe it is. Neither Swinton nor Hiddleston wink at the humor; they wear their existential angst lightly, but they are serious about this love story.

Whatever else it might be, love is one drug among others in the film. Adam and Eve drink their blood from tiny liqueur glasses, then fall back in a druggy ecstasy. No wonder Adam worships the dark-souled Kafka and the drug-addicted Poe. (I can't explain Dangerfield.)  

Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (who shot the gorgeous I Am Love, also with Swinton) creates a hauntingly beautiful look, as neon colors break into the night's blackness.  Jozef Van Wissem's lovely, minimalist, unobtrusive score adds atmosphere without doing anything as clumsy as giving us emotional cues.

Jarmusch has chosen his collaborators well; no one is out of synch with his amazing ability to let viewers see and experience his world directly, even when he places  us among the gloriously alive undead. 

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1 Comment

  • Emily | May 16, 2014 11:17 AMReply

    Have you seen "The Avengers"? "Golden-haired Loki" - what? Loki is dark-haired, pale, much like Adam. Loki's brother, Thor, is a blonde.

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