Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Review : Only Lovers Left Alive

This review of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive was originally published in Issue 4 of So Film magazine.

Much like the characters inhabiting the fringes of his worlds, walking to the beat of their own private drummer, Jim Jarmusch's singular approach to genre has always eluded convention. Where a Tarantino would transfuse and compound his cinematic references into a hybridised pop-confection ever in danger of eating itself, Jarmusch strips back to essentials, filtering more often an attitude than a trope through a much wider cultural prism.

His last film, the criminally underrated The Limits of Control (2009), offered a mere tincture of a lone hitman narrative, its spiritual kinship with its Melvillian antecedents distilled through philosophical digressions and a near-fetishised sense of poise and style. In some respects, Only Lovers Left Alive - his most swooningly romantic work to date - brings him full circle. Whilst literary touchstones have long informed his films (and even formed the very backbones of some), not since his 1980 debut, Permanent Vacation and its protagonist's postured affectations, has a stance of cultural elitism defined the hepcats and drifters who slink through his films.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are Adam and Eve, Miltonic exiles from a fallen world, a pair of star-crossed lovers surviving each other's absence on a diet of Beckett and de Campoamor, 1959 Supros and uncontaminated human blood. Adam and Eve are certainly vampires in the literal sense, but it's the metaphorical playground afforded by the notion of immortality, the gothic romanticism of a love affair spanning hundreds of years of human history with which Jarmusch is most concerned.

That's not to say there's not plenty of deadpan fun to be had at the expense of vampire lore, set off against an intoxicating visual motif for the feeding sequences. Whilst the junkie/addiction analogy comes with the territory, more interesting is that of vampirism as metaphor for the creative impulse, exemplified by fellow bloodsucker Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) ghostwriting Hamlet for that "illiterate philistine," and Adam an adagio for Schubert. Mirrors are of little use, so reflections come from "getting the work out there" by any means.

It's his depression at what he perceives as the inexorable zombification of humankind's cultural ideals that leads Adam to have a wooden bullet forged and Eve to join him in Detroit. Theirs is a life lived for each other, embodied in a monologue on Einstein's Theory of Entanglement and the recurring yin/yang imagery that peaks with a sumptuous overhead shot of the sleeping pair.

The opening sequence suggests that there's something cosmically charged in great art, as spinning stars melt into spinning vinyl. The revolutions continue into images of Adam and Eve on opposite sides of the world - time and space no barrier to art and love. Temporal notions are presented as peculiarly human conceits, the story of Detroit's Michigan Theatre explained by Adam after a night-time drive offering a layered sense of history awaiting resurgence at nature's hand. As Eve replies, "When the cities in the South are burning, this place will bloom."

As one image bleeds into the next, the film's snakehipped rhythms pulse to an impeccable selection of soundtrack cuts, as the luxurious textures of Yorick Le Saux' lensing mark this as Jarmusch's most sumptuous work since Dead Man (1995). It's a film to stand alongside his best, an exquisite ode if not to the future of mankind, then certainly to the best of what it left behind.

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