For 30 years, Jim Jarmusch has remained one of the cool kids. His 1984 breakthrough “Stranger Than Paradise” epitomized the East Village post-punk sensibility at a time when it was still genuinely edgy. While Jarmusch has continued to refer to rock music — he’s often used electric guitar-driven drone/ noise scores and does so again in his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive” — he’s also shown off his literacy, paying homage to William Blake in his Western “Dead Man.”
All these interests come together in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which attempts to reclaim the notion of hip back from hipsters. Jarmusch’s vampire characters dress in vintage clothing (they’re old enough that it was new when they bought it), play vinyl singles, and record music on analog tape. If your life was changed by punk rock — before Green Day sent it into the mainstream — this is a movie for you. If not, you’re likely to find the film’s vampires more annoying than romantic.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” begins with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) buying several antique guitars from Ian (Anton Yelchin). As it turns out, Adam is a vampire. He never leaves his house in a decaying Detroit neighborhood, preferring to record music in his home studio and let Ian act as a middleman between himself and the world. Adam is married to Eve (Tilda Swinton), who lives in Tangier and hangs out with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Marlowe, of course, claims to have really written all of Shakespeare’s plays. Eve returns to Detroit to be with Adam. Things go well until her wild sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up around the film’s halfway point.
If Jarmusch’s vampires love listening to and playing rock’n’roll, they have no use for sex, alcohol, or drugs. Blood seems to take the place of intercourse and intoxicants in their lives. “Only Lovers Left Alive” includes a montage of Adam, Eve, and Marlowe each taking a shot of blood and falling back in ecstasy. Vampirism has a long history as a metaphor for addiction, but that’s not really what Jarmusch is getting at here. Adam and Eve mention the dangers of contaminated human blood, seemingly referring to HIV without calling it out by name. With hospital-pure blood provided by a friendly doctor, their habit seems as harmless as a daily cup of coffee in the morning.
Jarmusch hits a peak of visual poetry in his nocturnal vistas of Detroit. He manages to capture why this crumbling city would attract someone with a romantic sensibility like Adam — all its glories seem to lie in the past. He takes Eve to sites that offer nostalgia rather than a hint of the city’s future, like a huge amphitheater now serving as a parking lot. Nevertheless, the sights are seductive to the characters and spectator alike.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” gets a needed jolt of energy when Ava enters the picture. Although at least a century old, she still seems girlish, even bratty. Wasikowska plays her like a cousin to the rebellious young women of Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies.” She’s impulsive and guided by her libido. For a vampire, that means she hasn’t learned the self-control that keeps Adam and Eve reliant on pre-packaged blood and away from attacks on humans. Adam and Eve treat her more like their wayward daughter than Eve’s sister. Her visit disrupts their daily life and points up the complacency underlying their romanticism. All the same, she’s gracelessly ejected both from their lives and the film.
In the past, Jarmusch has made multiculturalism look easy and fun. He’s one of the few white filmmakers ever to do so. However, apart from one amazing performance by Lebanese singer Yasmin, Tangier is mostly used here as an exotic backdrop, with Adam and Eve having little engagement with Moroccans. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is as cool as it sets out to be, but by the halfway point, a certain smugness sets in. Adam and Eve refer to humans as “zombies.” I can’t help but suspect that this is also the film’s attitude toward people who don’t own turntables or shop at thrift stores for vintage finds.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE | Directed by Jim Jarmusch | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens Apr. 11 | Film Society of Lincoln Center | Walter Reade Theater & Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 & 165 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com | Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarkth
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