Only Lovers Left Alive is a my-favorite-things picture from independent film director Jim Jarmusch. It is a Dutch still life painting, though the fruit has been substituted with the prized possessions of the artist. It is a film filled with cool and dark things, like dirty rock and roll, night drives, death, Nikola Tesla, sunglasses, vampires, Germany, chess, robes, clubs, paperbacks, vintage cars and guitars, guns, messy apartments, Detroit, red-eye flights and the sufficiently extra-terrestrial Tilda Swinton. These things have nothing in common, at least in terms of the narrative, but for the love Jarmusch has for each. But is that love a sufficient replacement for a series of events which gives rise to tension and drama?
Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or Pulp Fiction, Lovers is a narrowly curated visual checklist of the director’s favorite thisses and thats. The trick to pulling off a my-favorite-things movie is for the director to have a fine self knowledge, to have discovered what discreet logic underwrites their taste, and to be able to divulge that logic in a manner which instructs the viewer on how to do the same. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is overstocked with the feminine— the score, the costumes, the venues, the emotion, the barely undulated narrative arc. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, the narrator comments in once place about “the imprisonment of being a girl, [and how]… it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.” If Eugenides’ is even half-right, Coppola is perhaps the most girlish human being alive, as she seems to intuit (in each of her films) an organizing aesthetic principle so perfectly unifying, the story nearly becomes a simple substance.
While Lovers is a museum of Jim Jarmusch’s favorite things, the two principle characters are also obsessive collectors. The vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) collects fine instruments and recording equipment, while his vampire wife Eve (the albino-souled TS) collects books; for reasons only vaguely glanced in the closing moments, they live on opposite ends of the globe and talk on the phone in the evening. On a lark, Eve decides to fly to Detroit and see Adam. Both seem bored, simply hanging about the earth like slacker college sophomores on an eternal Christmas break. Jarmusch’s script becomes distracted half way through; after an hour of the lovers and their cool dark stuff, Eve’s irresponsible sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) returns from many decades hanging out elsewhere and messes up their weekend plans. She wants to go to a club, is alternately whiny and excitable, accidentally makes a mess. The shift from a moody, aimless character piece to clippings from US Weekly doing daffy “Vampires Are Just Like Us” pictorials (“They have annoying families!”) doesn’t add depth to the film, but rather comes off as shoddy editing work back in the screenwriting stage.
As with so many other vampire films, what is finally aggravating about Lovers is that the characters are allegedly several hundred years old, though they don’t address the world with much wisdom. Perpetual life has not freed them from their material concerns. Rather, it seems to have embroiled them in the ephemeral. I suppose their rabid self-interest might have been a problem a different director explored with the same script— vampirism as a feeding upon the world while offering nothing in return— though even Zach Snyder made a film about thematic parallels between commercialism and cannibalism. If someone could write a movie about a vampire who behaved as though he were three-hundred years old, he’d be on to something. Unfortunately, the kind of screenwriter who could write that script probably wouldn’t have much interest in doing it.
The film is forgettable, though, not because the vampires fail to act their ages, but because Jarmusch never finds a single track upon which to place his favorite things. In Marie Antoinette, Coppola managed to balance New Order with Versailles and Nylon magazine shoots, which sounds kitschy only until you’ve seen her pull it off. Again, the discreet logic elegantly holds disparate subjects in line. In Only Lovers Left Alive, you feel as though the thing has lost its way when Adam drives Eve to Jack White’s boyhood home in the middle of the night and the two have a brief conversation about him while the car idles.
“It’s Jack White’s house,” says Adam.
“Aw, little Jack White. Nice,” says Eve.
“You know he’s actually his mother’s seventh son?” asks Adam.
“Haha, I bet he is,” says Eve.
“This is absurd,” I said.