Few directors instantly conjure an image of cool aloofness in the way that Jim Jarmusch does. The man, in his dark clothes with his shock of white hair in a spiky pompadour, is probably as famous for his image as for his work. Such is the immortality that appearing on The Simpsons gets you. And yet the work is at least as distinctive. Slow, laconic stories about drifters and outsiders unspool inexorably as we share their reveries and defeats, and the occasional small triumph. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is an interesting shift, as he turns his attention from his usual pantheon of beautiful losers to the immortal thirst of vampires.
Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t remotely close to the glimmering teen pangs of Twilight (2008). Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are our pair of dark-crossed lovers Adam and Eve (because, of course). Like languorous cats they loll about, she in her Tangiers apartment, he in a reclaimed Detroit mansion in one of the more desolate neighbourhoods of that wasted town. Highly attuned but supremely weary, they’re a couple who choose to live far apart, distant but with the intimacy of hundreds of years between them. Adam is a musician, leaking his droning compositions to the world anonymously through his human gofer Ian (a grunge-haired Anton Yelchin). Posing as various literary doctors of note, he gets his blood fix from Dr. Watson (Jefrey Wright) in a hospital lab. It’s an effective set-up he’s built for himself, but Adam’s ennui is consuming him. Ironically, humanity’s world-wrecking destructive impulses are depressing him, and he craves a final release. Fearing for Adam’s emotional state, Eve flies to Detroit to be by his side. Her presence consoles him, but the abrupt arrival of her reckless sister Ava (Mia Wasikovska) sunders their delicate balance.
The film is sumptuous and heavy, and replete with Jarmusch’s dry wit. The vampires call humans “zombies,” for the unthinking character of our existence. Hearing Adam complain how tired he is of the zombies is a dire joke indeed. John Hurt gives a marvellous turn as Marlowe, Eve’s even older vampire mentor. Of course vampire Marlowe wrote several of Shakespeare’s plays for him back in the day, Jarmusch’s sly take on that literary debate. Their refinement is the most interesting element of Only Lovers Left Alive, that the vampires’ artistic sensibility has contributed so much to the great works of human expression (Adam’s palmed off his compositions to others over the centuries too). And yet now these forever outsiders can barely tolerate the callous obliviousness of modern society. They may be the monsters, falling back in junkie stupor as blood stains their lips, but to them, it’s humanity that’s monstrous.
Jarmusch doubtless has another layer of commentary on the loneliness and angst of the artist in today’s corporate blockbuster landscape; how hard it is to be part of a dying breed. It’s fitting that Only Lovers Left Alive is his most successful film since the equally transcendent bleakness of Dead Man (1995). A superbly deconstructive Western, that film stars Johnny Depp as a befuddled accountant named William Blake. After a tragic series of hapless misunderstandings, he’s shot, a bullet lodging near his heart, but escapes and is rescued by the hilariously matter-of-fact native Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody mistakes Depp for the English poet William Blake, and conceives that he will be a poet of guns rather than words. Their doomed journey into the Western twilight is extraordinary, and an interesting counterpoint to where Only Lovers Left Alive leaves off. A little spoilery, but Dead Man‘s characters reach an end-point that is grim and powerfully inevitable, whereas in the end of Only Lovers Left Alive our vampires at last awaken to their true selves. Watching two lovers embrace before them in the warm Moroccan night, Adam and Eve remember what they are. The final shot of the predatory joy on Eve’s face is astonishing. Sometimes, it’s good to be a monster.
Strange Paradise: The Cinema of Jim Jarmusch is on now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The retrospective features most of his films from over thirty years of output. Dead Man screens August 9th at 7pm, with a Skype intro from legendary actor Gary Farmer. Only Lovers Left Alive plays August 16th at 7pm. For the full schedule, see here. Only Lovers Left Alive will come out on DVD in North America on August 19th. Several of Jarmusch’s early films can be found online on Hulu.com, and a few more recent ones are on Netflix. They’re slow, offbeat and intriguing, and highly recommended if you like your movies idiosyncratic and smartly weird.