These days, when one describes the work of an independent filmmaker, the term “quirky” is often among the first adjectives that leap to mind – in fact, it almost seems to have become obligatory. But there was a time when it was not so. The earliest American indie films, in the ’60s and ’70s, tended to elude mainstream funding (and audiences) because they were too serious, too earnest, arty and intellectual – or too political. The “quirky” bit didn’t really come into the critics’ lexicon in a big way until the downtown-Manhattan indie boom of the 1980s. And, probably more than any other filmmaker of the day, it was Jim Jarmusch who put the quirk in the new cinematic aesthetic.
Jarmusch’s big breakthrough film, Stranger than Paradise, set the template for his low-key, mournfully staged, ironically humorous shaggy-dog-story style of storytelling. Most of his films are arguably road movies, although the enervated, socially fringy characters in them tend not to be going anywhere of significance or doing much of anything, really. There’s a lot more talk than action – though even the dialogue is spare, often punctuated by long silences. You laugh at certain lines without quite knowing why, and some of them stay with you a long time. I can’t think of Elvis Presley anymore without pronouncing it “Eruvis” in my head like the Japanese teenagers headed for Graceland in Mystery Train, or win a hand at cards without announcing “I om de veener” like the Hungarian grandmother in Stranger than Paradise.
It’s hard to say what it is about Jarmusch’s oeuvre that gets under the viewer’s skin so persistently, or how a movie can be so engaging when it breaks all the accepted rules of drama. Sitting down in a dark theatre to watch one is like stepping into another dimension where time slows down enough for us to pay attention to all the odd minutiae of daily life that normally fly by and escape our notice.
That’s a fair description of the lifestyle of Adam and Eve, the vampire protagonists of Jarmusch’s latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive. We don’t know for sure if they are really supposed to be the progenitors of the human race, but we do know that they have been around for many centuries. They can move faster than the eye can see or in languorous slow motion, and they’ve seen it all. They have had time to master all the arts and sciences and serve as mentors to humanity’s greatest geniuses.
But eternal life brings with it a sense of ennui, along with despair that humans – to whom Adam (Tom Hiddleston, in a role originally intended for Michael Fassbender) refers contemptuously as “zombies” – have made such a royal mess of the talents and resources that they were given, or had their best ideas (notably the technological breakthroughs of Nicola Tesla) suppressed by society. Much more so than the characters in a certain much more commercial series of recent vampire flicks, Adam and Eve lead a twilight existence, both literally, in that they go out only at night, and figuratively, in that their best days seem to be behind them.
Living on the grim, deserted outskirts of Detroit as a brilliant, reclusive rock star in the modern era, Adam has become depressed enough to contemplate suicide – attainable, in this version of vampire lore, by use of a wooden bullet. But he gets a new lease on life when Eve, the eternal soulmate whom he has married at least four times, flies in from Tangier to cheer him up. In an inspired bit of casting, Eve is portrayed by that most wraithlike of contemporary actresses, Tilda Swinton. Though she looks like death-warmed-over in nearly any part, she brings an indefatigable joie de vivre to this undead character: Eve loves to dance, can speed-read and instantly memorize books in any language, appreciates music from any era (though she describes herself as a “Stax girl” with an especial fondness for early R & B) and can tell the age and provenance of any human-made object just by fondling it.
Fine cuisine is about the only human artform that Eve can’t enjoy, since the two of them subsist solely on human blood, served in tiny cordial glasses. And modern times have not been kind to vampires’ ability to feed themselves in a civilized manner (i.e., without killing people), since the supply of donated blood has become widely contaminated. Adam, who seems to have access to unlimited cash, gets his O-negative by bribing a hospital technician played with great comic timing by Jeffrey Wright. Eve’s connection in Tangiers is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) – yes, that Christopher Marlowe, who according to Jarmusch wrote everything attributed to Shakespeare.
Also in the small, uniformly strong cast are Mia Wasikowska as Ava, Eve’s loose cannon of a “sister” who creates a crisis when she drops in uninvited on the primal couple’s domestic bliss in Detroit, and Anton Yelchin as Ian, a “zombie” who lends Adam a hand when he needs some ’70s recording equipment, a vintage guitar or a wooden bullet. I can’t tell you what line from Only Lovers Left Alive audiences will most likely be quoting for years to come, because it’s a major spoiler; but it does involve the latter two supporting characters. You’ll know it when you hear it.
The film’s chiaroscuro nocturnal cinematography of two wildly disparate cities, half a world apart, is exquisite. Though it’s not shot in black-and-white like the early works of Jim Jarmusch, his latest retains the moody, melancholy atmosphere that characterized his early films, leavened by plenty of dark, witty, rueful, tongue-in-cheek humor. And yes, it can still fairly be described as “quirky.”
Only Lovers Left Alive is an elegy for two prodigiously talented people who have loved well and long and lost pretty much everything but each other, in a world that no longer deserves them. For the rare viewer who can savor a movie in which almost nothing happens, this comes highly recommended.