Friday, October 03, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Who's In It: Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Moonrise Kingdom), Tom Hiddleston (Thor, The Avengers), Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Stoker), Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation), and John Hurt (Alien, Hellboy).

What It's About: A vampire couple struggles to find meaning in their immortal lives.

How It Is: Like Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive starts with a horror trope, but isn’t interested in the horrific elements of it. Under the Skin was the story of a killer alien stalking human prey, but told from the alien’s point of view as a dark, fish-out-of-water experience. Only Lovers Left Alive is about vampires, but doesn’t care about the usual themes of seduction and death. Instead it focuses on immortality and how that would affect a person.

It also deals with hunger, but not in the usual way. The vampires obviously need blood to survive, but their real hunger is for meaning in lives that never end. When you have that much time, how do you fill it with purpose? It’s a cool way to tackle a fundamental question. It’s also the second time I’ve seen a writer/director use fantasy to discuss the meaning of life in the last few months, but Lovers’ Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) is way more successful at it than Luc Besson was in Lucy. Besson suggests that the meaning of life is to learn and to pass on knowledge, but that’s boring and unfulfilling. Exactly like his movie.

Jarmusch’s vampires each have different answers to the problem, but they’re all more compelling than Besson’s. Adam (Hiddleston) has succumbed to ennui and lost whatever’s driven him in the past. He’s a musician and he appreciates great art, but he’s also depressed about the state of humanity and finds no joy in anything. His one tether to life is his wife Eve (Swinton), who lives on the other side of the world, but travels to Detroit to visit Adam when she learns he needs help.

Their separation isn’t due to a rift in their relationship. It’s obvious that they love each other very much and always have. Instead, not living together seems to be the natural product of their healthy, but immortal relationship. It’s good for married people to have individual interests that they don’t necessarily share with their partners. And when they literally have all the time in the world, it’s easy to see that extend to where they live. Detroit very much reflects Adam’s state of mind, while Eve embraces the life and culture she finds in Tangiers. Adam has withdrawn from vampire society and relies on an unwitting human (Yelchin) to get him stuff he needs, while Eve has the support of fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Christopher Marlowe; played by John Hurt). Another coping method is represented by Eve’s sister Ava (Wasikowska) who lives hedonistically and carelessly among humans.

Jarmusch presents one of these points of view as the healthiest, but he never comes right out and says it. He simply introduces these characters and lets us spend a couple of hours with them until we figure it out on our own. And that’s both the biggest strength and biggest problem with the movie. Adam and Eve’s worlds are aesthetically gorgeous, filled with things that give them pleasure, and it’s pleasant to spend time with them in those environments. But that’s really all that the movie is about. Things happen to the characters, but there’s very little actual story. Enjoyment of it depends entirely on how much you like just sort of hanging out with these characters. For me, I enjoyed visiting with them for a couple of hours and listening and thinking about what they had to say, but when our time came to an end, I wasn’t exactly wrangling for an invitation to come back.

Rating: Three out of five nonchalant nosferatu.

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