Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

Jarmusch makes things that look like movies, but really aren’t. This is just his prettiest such thing.

My Jarmusch Theory: “This cool element + that cool element = cool movie.” The reason that doesn’t work is because “this element + that element” only equals “this element + that element”. It doesn’t add up to an actual film.

As a director, Jim Jarmusch pushes a lot of traditional, cinematic buttons that viewers have learned from a history of Western cinema to pick up on, but then does nothing with them. It’s not that he zigs where others zag – that would be something; no, Jarmusch simply does… nothing. This “nothing” is particularly infuriating in Only Lovers Left Alive, where the buttons he pushes are particularly enticing, and his lack of follow-through, or any kind of statement, is particularly student-filmy. Only Lovers… sets up visual cues for viewers to engage with, in familiarly traditional, Western cinematic fashion – props as motifs, classic cinematography, narrative framing choices, good actors capable of nuanced performances. But ultimately, Only Lovers… seems to forget the plates it’s set spinning and go do other things. Instead of following through in similarly visual fashion and capitalising on these cues, Jarmusch instead relies on the odd line of dialogue, or some “pivotal” event which lacks context or precursor, to function as “narrative development”. The feeling I get is that Jarmusch makes references without understanding them at all – pastische without panache. His real talent seems to be his access to hip / talented stars and in surrounding himself with top-notch crews – people who understand the traditions they’re referencing, or at least the opportunities afforded their roles, much better than he does his. He relies on the currency of his collaborators , be it cultural or technical, to carry an idea of his that isn’t all that substantial.

Without any sort of follow-through, Only Lovers Left Alive is all “fore-” with no “-shadowing” (or “-play”)

Only Lovers… is a beautiful-looking film. It’s criminal that Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are both as talented and as beautiful as they are – and Yorick Le Saux‘s cinematography is lush, in classic, traditional Hollywood ways (which is not a criticism, but important to note in understanding why Only Lovers… is ultimately less than the sum of its parts). These wonderful, cinematic elements are actually part of the problem: Only Lovers… looks and feels like a film, because of casting and aesthetic decisions which are ultimately directorial; and yet the director does none of the things with these elements that make their selections seem deliberate or even considered – which, ultimately, makes those decisions feel superficial, and the film forgettable.

Jarmusch clearly doesn’t understand anything about foreshadowing; or rather, he paid attention to the first part, but not the payoff. Only Lovers… amounts to little more than a bunch of metaphorical (and one literal) Chekhov’s guns. The average viewer may not know about Chekhov’s gun, but you’d hope, assume even, that a fiction film maker two decades deep into his career would too. Evidently, this one doesn’t. Let’s revisit the Ur text:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” – Chekhov

In Only Lovers…, Jarmusch puts several elements into play which could each create real drama, or could at least be used to generate more interesting, filmic storytelling: the wooden bullet; the gun as a looming, latent threat (look how it’s framed every time – it’s literally larger than any single actor); emo Adam’s suicidal tendencies; Jeffrey Wright‘s growingly suspicious doctor; Ava’s wildcard behaviour; the mysterious “leak” of Adam’s music; the possible vampire at the club. Each is interesting and potentially plot-driving, and yet not one of them ultimately plays any narrative role, or comes to pose any real threat to the protagonists. If any two of those elements had been combined (eg. Ava and the gun; the possible-vampire in the club and… anything), then we have tension. We have, at least the beginnings of, a movie.

But without any sort of follow-through, it’s all “fore-” with no “-shadowing” (or “-play”); it’s a bunch of sentence starts with no full stops, a series of gags without punchlines. That may, in itself, be the “gag” – but there are so many elements in the movie that not only fail to support that, they weaken and undermine the entire experience.

The fundamental “un-shadowed fore” is that the vampires themselves are never really established as dangerous – in fact, more time is spent showing how harmless they are, and the lengths they go to to acquire blood without killing humans – which renders everything you see them do as… well, kind of boring. Jarmusch is saying, “Look, Vampires! Deadly. Right?” (in much the same way he says “Look, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop! Cool. Right?” in Coffee and Cigarettes) – but after a while, Adam and Eve start to just look like a rock star couple with rock star hair. (I actually began to watch Only Lovers… as if Adam and Eve weren’t vampires, to see if the film played allegorically. Sadly, it doesn’t.) Tilda Swinton’s beautiful, complex Eve is richer than the source material – she plays her as a compassionate, affectionate alien. Imagine if Jarmusch had begun the film by showing her actually killing, doing something vaguely evil or monstrous – her performance for the rest of the film could remain sweet and gentle, and we’d be absolutely terrified of her the whole time (like Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” explanation of “surprise” versus “suspense”). Instead, she and Adam sip on glasses of sherry, and only really bare their fangs the film’s final shot (one which is ultimately lamely comical – but maybe that’s a cheeky, hipster emotional note I’m just not getting).

… where hipster fetish value is expected to be its own reward…

As for the argument that Jarmusch is deliberately making “alternative” movies: no he isn’t – he’s making an alternative to making movies. Compare a film of Jarmusch’s to one by Wes Anderson (who only comes to mind because I watched Grand Budapest Hotel immediately after Only Lovers…). Wes Anderson is another director whose films also play with certain Hollywood film conventions. The biggest difference, however, is that every single element in an Anderson movie, everything he asks you to look at and take note of, ultimately serves a purpose. Wes Anderson rewards you for being visually literate – Jim Jarmusch mocks you for it.

(There’s probably a whole essay in the difference between the two directors’ handling of Bill Murray alone).

Perhaps Only Lovers… was intended to present a fresh idea in vampire mythology, about the surprising uneventfulness of immortal life (constant potential threats that never amount to anything, preternatural existence as deathly stagnant). If so, then why is the last thirty minutes of the film suddenly about urgency (Adam and Eve’s sudden desperate need to find blood)? And what signals this “dramatic” final act – any of the sumptuous visual cues Jarmusch has been presenting and then forgetting over the past hour or so? Not a one; it’s a single line from John Hurt’s dying vampire Kit Marlowe – a late explanation of “the good stuff”, and the first illustration of just how serious the blood-quality situation has been for the vampires all this time. This pisses me off for two reasons. Firstly: one line of dialogue in such a visual film isn’t enough to create real tension – if this is a lingering threat, then it should be signalled from the outset, not only to lend weight to the Kit Marlowe scene, but to add tension to the film overall. Secondly: we’re expected to believe that Adam and Eve have endured for centuries (“I’m a survivor, baby” Eve tells Adam soon after they reunite, with the only hint of deadliness her character is afforded the entire film), and yet they have no survival strategies when they’re suddenly in a corner? Either Adam and Eve have got their shit together (which explains why life for them is boring), or they’re constantly in danger (which should have made for a far more dramatic film than we’ve seen).

Only Lovers… is a good example of why I can’t get into Jarmusch – though the “best” example is the aforementioned Coffee & Cigarettes, which is more explicitly dysfunctional (the hipster fetish value of pointing a camera at cult figures in mainstream entertainment, as they exchange post-modern, or self-reflexive, or whatever-the-hell-it’s-supposed-to-be banalities, is expected to be its own reward – which, while potentially interesting, is really just indulgent, barely novel, and hardly a movie).

I haven’t closed the book on Jarmusch yet though – and though it sounds like I’m coming down hard on him, it’s only because there’s so much in Only Lovers… that I thought was really stunning and expected a lot more to happen with. There must be a reason why so many people like his films – which is why I have Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise next in line, both of which I’m yet to watch for the first time…