Sunday, January 11, 2015
Only Lovers Left Alive
Ostensibly about superannuated vampires, Jim Jarmusch's 2013 Only Lovers Left Alive is the filmed equivalent of a decadent prose-poem about glamour and addiction. Tilda Swinton, who always seems a bit unearthly, plays a vampire named Eve. She reads all known languages and lives in Tangiers with her vampire-friend, Kit Marlowe (John Hurt). Marlowe is a little embittered that the plays he wrote around the turn of the 17th century have been attributed to a "philistine Zombie called Shakespeare" -- but he has spent the intervening centuries writing a number of new plays, glimpsed by the camera on his desk amid other scraps of sonnet and essay. On the other side of the world, Adam, Eve's paramour, lives in a crumbling mansion in a particularly desolate section of Detroit -- Adam is a musician and he collects musical instruments: vintage guitars, Stradivarius violins, and the like. Adam was a friend of Byron and he is a bit the worse for that relationship: morose, lonely, a wanderer like Cain on the face of the earth, plotting suicide with a 38 caliber bullet made from the hardest wood in the world. Adam summons Eve, who takes a night flight to Detroit and they make love and lounge around the haunted mansion discussing arcane subjects such as quantum mechanics, fungi, celestial objects, and the discredited legacy of Nikola Tesla. The relationship between the two vampires involves something that Adam, who is scientifically inclined, describes as "spooky action at a distance" -- that is, quantum entanglement -- and the film actually illustrates this concept in the bravura opening sequence in which a spinning vinyl record metamorphoses into the vampires spinning simultaneously thousands of miles apart: ancient, elemental particles whose rotation is entangled even though they are remote from one another. A sort of story happens when a third vampire interrupts Adam and Eve's Detroit idyll, a vulgar hedonistic blood-sucker from LA named Ava. (LA is said to be "zombie-central"; "zombie" is a disparaging word that the vampires use for ordinary mortals.) Someone gets "drunk" -- that is, exsanguinated, and Adam and Eve have to flee back to Tangiers where Marlowe is dying ("contaminated" blood). Tangiers, of course, is William Burroughs' territory and the final scenes in that city involve the vampires slinking around trying to locate another "fix" -- the film visualizes drinking blood as like a mainline injection of heroin and the movie's real subject, I think, is heroin addiction as a glamorous affliction, a questionable concept to be sure. The film is shot entirely at night and the landscapes are impressive: rotting ballrooms and auditoriums in Detroit, the yellow-lit labyrinth of lanes in the souk in Tangiers, empty highways leading through industrial wastelands. Essentially, the film is an excuse for its director, Jim Jarmusch, to put on screen things that interest him: eerie rockabilly tunes from the fifties, Goth drone rock in a Detroit nightclub, vintage soul music, and, at the end, a spectacular musical number by a Lebanese singer named, Jasmine Hamden. (Jarmusch's own band, Squrl, is featured in the memorable opening sequence.) The vampires are portrayed as harmless, reclusive eccentrics -- they get their blood by bribing hospital pathologists and are too cultured to stoop to ripping open people's throats (although in a pinch, they are capable of this.) Basically, they are like the characters in Huysmans' novels. esthetes with hyper-acute senses, connoisseurs of arcane knowledge -- they seem to be able to sense the chemical constituents of substances through the palms of their hands. They are beautiful and (mostly) harmless: Tom Hiddleston as the tormented Adam is particularly gorgeous; his torso is sculpted like a Greek god. Both Adam and Eve have the spurious, emaciated glamor of French fashion models -- they embody "heroin-chic": ivory-pale, hollow-cheeked, glowing with a greenish lunar pallor. The movie is languorous and dreamlike -- at times, it reminded me a bit of the Scarlet Johannsen film Under the Skin. It's self-indulgent, mostly an exercise in an outré decadent sensibility, but I liked the film.