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“ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE” (TIFF Movie Review)

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The first thing you must know about the film ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is that it is a vampire film. The second thing you need to know is that it is written and directed by arthouse auteur Jim Jarmusch. Therefore you can fairly easily and accurately assume that it is a vampire film like no other and your embrace of its charms will depend squarely on this revelation.

The film is currently unspooling its North American premiere as we speak at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (it played earlier in Cannes) and it is indeed an odd, beautiful and challenging piece of work. Not challenging in the sense it asks much of its viewers’ intellect, but for the average horror fan it will certainly be a difficult experience. In it, Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the THOR and AVENGERS movies) stars as an ancient vampire named Adam, living as an experimental cult rock musician in a cluttered, burnt out Detroit house. He is gaunt. Romantic. Suicidal. Depressed. A genius. And he looks like Ian McCulloch from ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN. The object of his eternal affection is the stunning Eve (the majestic Tilda Swinton) who lives half way across the world in an equally cluttered flat in Tangiers. The two have a centuries-old connection—we’re lead to believe she turned him—and communicate via Skype while apart. When Eve sees that her estranged, equally undead lover is down in the dumps she bids goodbye to her vampire pal Marlowe (the great John Hurt) and hops double night flights to Michigan to cheer Adam up.

The couple embrace and taste each other (we never see them actually make love but presume there is some sort of vampire sex afoot) and proceed to sit around Adam’s home, listening to records, talking about the past and drinking blood—O negative that Adam gets from an inside man at a hospital blood bank played by Jeffrey Wright (as a subtle aside, Wright played the title role in the film BASQUIAT and a book on the actual artist figures into the messy mise-en-scene). When Eve’s bratty vampire sister Eva (Mia Wasikowska) appears, looking to party and suck blood the old fashioned way, things soon spiral out of control.

Well, to be honest, they don’t get too out of control. And this is where ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE might lose some. The film is not about its plot, it’s simply about hanging out with these people as they drift through moments with all the time in the world to do so. To enjoy Jarmusch’s rambling work is to fall into its cheerful groove, a metaphor hammered home by his obsession with vinyl, as evidenced right from the opening frames. In that stunning start, we focus on the cosmos, before stars melt into a spinning 45, its needle running over the scratchy surface. The record then turns into the duel tableaux of both Adam and Eve in their separate dwellings—he shirtless and morose surrounded by guitars and electronics, she relaxed and regal entombed by stacks of dusty old books—rotating while slow zooming for minutes upon minutes. Only the most cast-iron stomach will escape feeling nauseous and yet it’s a brilliant bit of style, one that sets the tone for the loose, playful and decidedly bizarre romantic horror film to follow.

There is so much to worship in this picture: the fetishized props, the endless music both bluesy and psychedelic, the mesmerizing performances (Swinton is a goddess) and rapturous, yet practical and budget conscious, production design. There are also myriad plays on the act of vampirism itself. Our heroes are civilized and have abolished killing humans (or “zombies” as Adam calls them) in favor of sipping it from goblets and tripping into grinning, fanged ecstasy, sequences that are wonderfully filmed and edited to long stretches of music, playing out like balletic rock videos.

For those that thrive on artfully rendered genre films, this film is like fine dining. But there are chinks in its impressive armor. Jarmusch’s dialogue is generally, well, awful. When Adam and Eve speak it is a blend of hammer-on-the head exposition and obvious, trite exchanges about how Adam used to hang with Lord Byron and Mary Shelly and Einstein etc. For two people that have lived for centuries, it’s odd that they seemingly traveled in virtually every celebrity circle. We don’t need these passages. They fill in the picture’s divine ambiguities with cliché and pseudo-hip groaners that often threaten to derail the entire spell that the director otherwise tries so hard to maintain. I’m not suggesting the picture should be silent, per se, but a few judicious trims of this deadly verbiage would work wonders.

Otherwise, there is a serious voodoo swirling around in ONLY OTHERS LEFT ALIVE that you will not find anywhere else in any other vampire movie. That power will stick with you long after the lights go up.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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