Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a moody artist with a reclusive life in Detroit, recently intent on committing suicide. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his wife; she reads a lot and hangs out with an old friend (John Hurt, as Christopher Marlowe) in Tangier. An unexpected call from his spouse leads to a reunion between this pair - people who are utterly intimate, despite living apart. So what happens when this couple, equal in depthless knowledge and passion, reunites? Only Lovers Left Alive tells the story of one such reunion that's at least 100 years overdue - because Tom and Tilda play vampires.
Jim Jarmusch loves character study stories about people in peculiar moral quandaries. In Dead Man, a fairly-average chap is transformed into a hunted outlaw, something which he does not bring upon himself at all. In Ghost Dog, a hitman follows the samurai code that requires him to do the right thing even when everyone - including his master - does the wrong things for the very worst reasons.
And for all the similarities between his earlier work and his latest, the biggest difference is that this effort doesn't really have much of a story to it at all. In fact, the first 40 minutes of this movie feel like a lot of hyper-brief vignettes. Rather than take all this as damning criticism, it's an observation that means I'm all the more impressed by how good this picture is.
For a viewer, "character study" basically means "watch X role go through X stuff." You are won over (or not) by experiencing the hopefully-interesting things that the character does, or by witnessing what the film has to say about the role's nature as a human being or people as a whole.
So the weird thing about OLLA is that it also can feel just a bit incomplete on the character study front. Attention is split almost evenly between Adam and Eve - he gets more time, and thus feels like the true lead, but it's pretty close - and the equal focus sort of dilutes what the movie conveys about each of them.
Moreover, several events that occur don't simply fail to build a real story - they almost seem a distraction, because they don't show us anything new about the players. Yet, for all that my words sound critical, I completely enjoyed this movie. I was entertained for the whole duration, the atmosphere was stunning, I appreciated and had strong feelings about the characters, and I loved many of the ideas presented in the film. That last sentence lists a lot of the standards I use to judge movies, and Only Lovers is kind of a homerun by many of those measures.
Adam has this tired emo vibe about him. He loves making art, but wishes to hide it from the world (because it is for himself), nor does he want to make new friends (because he is for himself). Eve carries the same undercurrents, but in a more jovial and positive fashion – she courts people where he peeks out his windows, and where he wants to quit life, she looks for new things to jump into. Adam wears mostly black, while Eve dresses in white (which, combined with that haircut, makes her look like the Ghosts from Matrix Reloaded). Like any good couple, they're interesting enough apart, but it’s impossible to ignore how they truly shine when together.
Nor can I ignore that this feels like an exceptionally well-made movie about Anne Rice's Lestat characters. I mean, it's a horror/fantasy premise with a heavy emphasis on art, philosophy, perspective, and a somewhat sexless passion. But it’s impossible for me to not also view this as a romance story. OLLA follows two people who know each other completely and can talk about anything, the way only people deeply in love can. Whether undead or alive, Eve and Adam are devoted to one another, regardless of staying apart for long stretches of time.
In this regard, it’s great. You feel their relationship as a genuine bond between two real people, even though they’re supposed to be ageless European blood-drinkers.
It's just so interesting to see how these two understand and push and nurture each other, although it's hard to understand why they'd spend so much time apart if he's dependent on her to stay positive about life and if she... Well, that's the other thing - aside from Adam being a handsome man who loves her, it's not clear what he gives her in this relationship. Little things like this helped make Eve feel like a female supporting role, and not the picture’s co-lead.
However, I am happy that lots of themes and motifs are apparent throughout. Addiction is a major one – there’s a lush Confessions of an English Opium-Eater sequence, and you get the sense that blood is providing these characters with more of a high than it is offering simple nourishment.
Even forgetting that Adam and Eve are taken for heroin addicts ("I got what you need" is said repeatedly), they do actually look and behave like junkies. They both have this worn-out vibe, and Adam’s sense of weariness (and let’s not forget his suicide) shows that this drained quality is emotional as well as physical. Hell, someone they know dies from getting “bad stuff.”
What’s more, the picture offers lots of ideas about how people like this would view the world around them. It’s quite funny that the film never once uses the word "vampire," yet repeatedly uses "zombie" - but only to describe everyday people. To Adam, who’s shut himself away from others (even his fellow vamps), humanity is a collection of mindless idiots who do nothing positive.
The most compelling elements in Only Lovers are found in its moral aspect. Neither of the leads are sociopaths; these mature figures feel for other people, and Eve really cares that Adam wants to end it all – her emotion does not spring from possessiveness or narcissism or insecurity or control, the motivations of many inferior lovers. Both have some firm beliefs, as well as a deep passion for ideas and aesthetics. Neither of these vamps want to hurt people, just to enjoy existence and steep their lives in experience.
Yet not wanting to cause harm isn’t a trait that encompasses this immortal duo. Their role is less that of a cannibal and more like a carnivore – at some point, you need what you need to survive, and you have to take it or die. This pair reacts to emergencies and hard choices with the coldness of a long-time warrior, not with the squeamishness of an effete snob or the ambiguity of a conflicted liberal. To Jarmusch’s credit, his characters seem less like Ayn Rand fans than simply practical and decent (or trying to be).
Yet the sense of solipsism or narcissism extends pretty far. There’s a strong environmentalism motif here – I approve of it, as natural devastation would probably be a big deal to someone who lived before the 19th Century and intends to live long past it. The film has one memorable scene which “certainly was visual” in showing how bad the environment is in Detroit. But at the same time, Adam never worries about other animals getting wiped out – his complaint always turns to how poisoning the water poisoned peoples’ blood, which is his source of life and ecstasy. You’re not sure if he’s a former killer, an angry-yet-tired rebel, or a selfish, depressed jerk. This grey area adds a rare and very welcome flavor to what transpires on-screen, and I was grateful for it.
The topics one notices here are pretty interesting. In addition to what I’ve written above, you have: Adam’s depression and how that may color what he says and does; the private nature of artists (seriously, how does his music get to others?), as well as the strain of living a solitary life; artists’ tendency to get depressed; and the sheer comfort and glorious warmth of being with someone who really knows and gets you.
Jarmusch’s film boasts an excellent cast in letter-perfect form. I walked out of this pic so happy for everyone involved – the biggest shame is that Anton Yelchin doesn’t seem to get many chances to do work like this... I’ve always liked Swinton and she continues to dazzle and amaze with her peformance. This is also my first non-Marvel film with Hiddleston, and I really need to check out as much of his other work as possible. To everyone who told me “Hiddles is the s--t”: you were right.
Well, actually, there’s one exception: Mia Wasikowska is like nails on a chalkboard in the role of Ava, Eve’s sister. She’s the kind of character that I always instantly hate – a selfish narcissist – who’s even worse by being the incompetent-type who can get other people in trouble. I’d be more kind about the part of Ava, but (a) there were no surprises for me there and (b) she takes time from everything this pic could do with itself. If you cut her out or reduced her part, this could’ve been a more satisfying character story – or they could’ve used the space to add more of a story here.
I also like the font used for the title and other credits. And I really love the low-key score, which at times is very rough and dirty, and moody in the best possible way. The soundtrack also has a lot of material that sounds exactly like what I've heard by bands playing at bars/small venues (I’ve done that a lot). It gave the one scene at a bar with live music a wonderful verisimilitude.
The cinematography is, similarly, superb. Some shots are just so lush in framing and camera movement, others have this great gorilla-filming style that makes you feel like you’re in the characters’ perspective or standing nearby and watching the events unfold. At other times, the camera seems to recreate the sort of images expected of Renaissance art, or a William Blake illustration. One needs only see the rotating overhead shots of Tilda and Tom to be impressed – and to note a certain visual similarity to fractals, which makes the later use of the name Fibonacci kinda neat.
The critical problem, again, is that several scenes show us our leads doing exactly what we expect from them. Instead of pushing the characters forward – or even establishing a narrative – the reactions to things that happen don't challenge our expectations, and events are less interesting when they happen in the “so now this is happening” fashion seen here. I suppose maybe you can tie Adam’s initial intention to what he does at the end, but that feels like a stretch... In any case, I hope that people aren’t too turned off by these flaws, and that they can appreciate Only Lovers Left Alive for the creative, atmospheric, rich experience that it is.