Film Micrœview #71: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

04.19.2014 § 1 Comment

Only Lovers Left Alive

Rating: Dr. Pepper.

Jim Jarmusch is one of those guys that can make a movie about anything at all and it is just a pleasure to watch every minute of it. Only Lovers Left Alive’s premise may not seem too enticing: another goddamn vampire movie, in which gothy suicidal recluse rockers mope about the evils of fame and being alienated in a world full of lame-os. And yet Jim — with his deep heart, broad humor, expert restraint, craft and wit — makes it work. Even throwaway jokes referring to vampire characteristics weren’t forced, and worked.

Credit a great deal of the success of this film, too, of course, to Tilda Swinton, ’nuff said. That guy who plays Loki in the Thor movies wasn’t bad either. I still hate Mia what’s-her-face after her role in Stoker, though.

Much credit is also due to the cinematographer. Setting the scene with spinning stars, spinning records, spinning aerial shots descending onto our two star-crossed lovers: perfection. Their lives are characterized by many, many more spins around the sun than we ever see. The tilting shots when the vampires feed are also unforgettable.

And a tremendous amount of credit to the writers. The confrontation between the two protagonists over a certain wooden item, for me, perfectly encapsulated the overall vibe of the story: that even creatures who are very old and very strong are still youthful and full of fear and need. Thankfully the need they focus on most is love, and love is bountiful. The two protagonists of this film are not in perpetual conflict. The story doesn’t follow a traditional structure. It’s more about the slow burn, the impending doom, death of the world by sickness, contamination. This device of the “contaminated blood” as a threat to vampires was new to me, anyway, and in this representative context is a stroke of genius.

What redeemed the choice of vampire fantasy for me was the realistic edge this fantasy was given. One character asks for a wooden bullet to be made for him, since, of course, wood through the heart kills a vampire — but the density of the wood was discussed as if there was a physical explanation for the effect. And the thing about vampires not being able to enter a room without being invited — one of them does, but another tells her it’s terrible luck. In addition to the amusement of beings of superstition exhibiting superstition, this leaves the trueness ambiguous: the character does in fact get herself sick during her stay there, and the extent of her sickness is never revealed (later we see that such sickness can be fatal) — if it were revealed, it would have broken this careful realistic treatment of fantastical scenario.

Another thing I loved about the writing is that while indeed the movie moves slowly and little happens, like most great films, everything is simply the tip of an iceberg. They’re on the phone booking a flight — not typical exciting stuff of the movies — but London? No good. Why? We never find out. What happened with Eve’s sister in Paris? We never learn. All these backstories are left to the worst of our vampire-story imagination. And what’s up with the gloves thing? Another new invention for the vampire lore in OLLA, with no explanation, but which gets the imagination going.

Finally, my girlfriend Lauren, who is a fashion expert, says the clothes were good. They certainly didn’t detract for me — just fit into and contributed well to the overall production design.

While I generally try not to distract myself with this level of analysis on first viewing, I get the sense that one could subject Only Lovers Left Alive to an allegorical interpretation. Certainly there were no shortage of references to historical artists and thinkers, and quirky takes on the struggles of modernity (these vampires pack luggage and refrigerators full of books, and are like elderly mad scientists crossed with cultural critics), and I also wonder about the meaning (considering Jarmusch’s sensitivity to race) that when the couple runs out of victimless options for blood it is in Tangiers unit and they must feed on ethnic locals to survive. If OLLA does contain such threads, I do not believe they are what are most important to it, however — it seems content to focus on white dwarf stars as gong-sounding diamonds in the sky. It’s a dreamer, not an activist.

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