Only Lovers Left Alive

Movie Information

The Story: The love story of two ancient lovers who happen to be vampires. The Lowdown: An unbelievably atmospheric and elegant film that is deeply suffused with both sadness and beauty. Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive belongs on your must-see list, even if you don't like horror movies.  
Score:

Genre: Horror Romance
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright
Rated: R

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Elegant, somber, literary-minded, methodical in its pacing, otherworldy, inexpressibly sad, sometimes very funny and invariably beautiful, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is both one of the most unusual vampire pictures ever made and probably one of the best. I strongly suspect that part of the film’s inspiration comes from Ken Russell’s unproduced Dracula screenplay, in which great artists live for centuries by becoming vampires. (It suggests that Beethoven and Sibelius are the same person.) But what was for Russell only an idea has become the crux of Jarmusch’s film — and it’s every inch a Jarmusch film. The approach is mostly deadpan. The visuals are striking. The soundtrack is rife with 1950s pop music. The story is often indirect. The humor is quirky and occurs at unexpected moments. It is all quite wonderful, but if what you’re looking for is a gory bout of horror, this is not it. Oh, it’s in the horror genre, but it’s … well, untraditional.

 

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Only Lovers Left Alive is essentially the love story of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Whether they are the Adam and Eve is not addressed, but they have been lovers for many centuries. When the film opens, they are living separate lives. Eve lives in Tangier, enjoying her existence and spending her time with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), and, yes, he’s that Christopher Marlowe. Even though he’s immortal, Marlowe’s mind tends to wander — though not without settling one of the great questions of literary history about the authorship of certain plays. Adam lives far away in a crumbling mansion in decaying Detroit where he works on his music (it’s suggested that he was Paganini) with the help of his “zombie” (what the vampires call humans) friend, Ian (Anton Yelchin in easily his best performance). He has no vampire friends, and he only goes out to buy untainted blood from a contact, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), in a hospital. (Untainted blood is rare commodity in the modern world — rather like virgin blood in Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula.) He also suffers from suicidal tendencies and general malaise — conditions that have long plagued him, it seems. His mood, however, is sufficiently gloomy that Eve opts to come for a visit (via a complex series of night flights).

 

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To say that her presence perks him up would be overstating the case, but life is clearly better for him when she’s there — at least until her younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up. Ava is bad news all the way around. She’s a spoiled, vain, selfish party girl who has been spending her time in Los Angeles (“zombie central” to Adam — and probably Jarmusch). Not surprisingly, she manages to destroy Adam’s life in Detroit when she vampirizes Ian. (“You drank Ian!” rages Adam.) Even after disposing of the body in a vat of acid in a disused auto factory (“That was visual,” comments Eve at the skeletal remains), they opt to beat it to Tangier — using the names Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan — only to encounter new problems.

 

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It is all brilliantly done — very nearly perfect. Jarmusch has crafted a film that feels like a wonderful, musty, old bookshop smells. It is rich in ancient promises with beauty found in the most unlikely places. The images of Adam driving Eve around the ruins of Detroit in his white Jag are both eerie and strangely wonderful. Every moment has something remarkable to see or hear or feel. But so much depends on Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the title lovers, and their world-weary, yet still active appreciation for the world of art and beauty. It is impossible to imagine two other performers in the roles. They are that perfect and believable. The pace and the lack of much traditional action is going to make the film difficult for some, but if you can tap into the film’s beauties and overwhelming sense of sadness at the passing of an age, it is remarkable — and a must-see — even if you’re not a horror fan. Rated R for language and brief nudity.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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18 thoughts on “Only Lovers Left Alive

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    I also didn’t have room in my review to mention the way in which the blood-drinking scenes are shot. Pure ecstasy through the angle, camera movement, and performer’s face, one of many poetic moments that really just have to be seen.

    Probably my #3 of this year, behind Grand Budapest and The Past, just ahead of The Lunchbox and Dom Hemingway.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I think I’d put it just under Grand Budapest and above the others. (I’m still thinking of The Past as last year’s, Plus, it isn’t something I want to see again,)

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    The photo of them in the sunglasses recalls Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER. I’m glad to read that this sounds much, much better. I’ll catch it this weekend.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Oh, Lord, it is nothing at all like THE HUNGER. Thank Clapton.

  5. Edwin Arnaudin

    Did you also think that Ian and Ava intentionally look like a younger Adam and Eve? Perhaps each one is trying to emulate his or her role model?

  6. Ken Hanke

    It seems fairly likely. The undercurrents of the movie are impossibly rich.

    It’s too soon to be sure of anything like this, but I really have a hunch that ONLY LOVERS is going to end up on the short list of truly great, truly essential vampire movies — the ones that both define and transcend the genre. By this I mean Murnau’s NOSFERATU, Browning’s DRACULA, Dreyer’s VAMPYR, Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, and, yes, Morrissey’s BLOOD FOR DRACULA. (Jordan’s BYZANTIUM is another too recent possible contender.) Though it is very unlike BLOOD FOR DRACULA (except that “untainted blood” and “virgin’s blood” are clearly connected), that film — with its undertone of sadness for the passing of an era — is perhaps the most close relative. But ONLY LOVERS is unique. It’s not quite like anything.

    Is it very wrong of me to smile everytime I think of “You drank Ian!”?

  7. Edwin Arnaudin

    Is it very wrong of me to smile everytime I think of “You drank Ian!”?

    I’d say it’s very right. That, the various literary Doctor references with Jeffrey Wright, “That was visual,” and the way Adam says, “Zombie central” are its funniest lines.

  8. Me

    “I really have a hunch that ONLY LOVERS is going to end up on the short list of truly great, truly essential vampire movies — the ones that both define and transcend the genre. ”

    What about the fairly recent Let the Right One In? Would you throw that in there?

  9. Me

    I was kind of disappointed by the ending, it felt conventional compared to the rest of the film.

  10. Ken Hanke

    What about the fairly recent Let the Right One In? Would you throw that in there?

    It’s a distinct possibility, but I need to see it again. One that I should have had in there is SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE.

    I was kind of disappointed by the ending, it felt conventional compared to the rest of the film.

    Oh, on the contrary, it neatly dodges what we’ve been expecting for at least 15 minutes, and is very much of a piece with the tone of the rest of the film. What would you have replaced it with?

  11. Me

    I dont know what i would have replaced it with and i didn’t know what to expect in the last 15 minutes either. SPOILER, but i took it as they were taking their victims form so they could live as them. Maybe I read too much into it, did they just want their blood and that was it? Im not really versed in the horror genre so I probably dont know what im talking about, can vampires take their victims form, is that even a thing?

  12. Ken Hanke

    No, that’s not even a “thing,” though the mythology is fairly malleable (see — or better still don’t see — TWLIGHT and its sparkly vampires).

    SPOILER REALM:

    It looked to me like the ending was heading for THIRST territory (or several other films that use a similar ending). Jarmusch’s film makes it fairly clear that a vampire can either just drink a victim or turn the victim. “You drank Ian!” is followed by, “Couldn’t you just have turned him?” — i.e., make him a vampire. The turning they’re talking about at the end is doing that with the young Moroccan couple, which prompts Adam’s “You’re such a romantic” comment. (Maybe Romantic — with a capital letter — would be better here, since it’s grounded in Romantic era ideas.)

  13. Me

    Haven’t seen Thirst, but unfortunately I have seen parts of one of the Twilight movies. Like I say i don’t know much about vampire lore, and haven’t seen many horror films.

  14. Me

    “Well, whose fault is that?”

    Which part, the Twilight movie was against my will.

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