Jim Jarmusch is the noted American ‘cult director’, and if you were to judge him solely on the basis of Only Lovers Left Alive you’d be minded to think the cult can keep him. It’s a take on the vampire genre, which is fair enough, as who hasn’t had a go, but this is so lethargically meditative and so packed with pompous in-crowd references and such a monotonous yawn that if, by some miracle, you make it to the end, I should warn you there is every chance you will find yourself the Only One Left Awake. Poor you.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve, which may mean they were the first people on the planet, or it may not mean that at all. (I can’t be expected to decide the meaning for you; I am not paid enough, and am also quite a busy person.) They are vampires and immortal and have been married for hundreds of years and love each other deeply, deeply, deeply but she lives in Morocco while he lives in Detroit. Why? No idea. He is a reclusive musician, has a thing for historic guitars, sports a heavy-metal hair-do, and mopes around gloomily in a gloomily dark house. They are modern vampires. They Skype. They have iPhones. They acquire their blood in modern ways. Adam acquires his favourite tipple, O-negative, in Thermoses from a corrupt doctor at a hospital. Eve, when not wafting palely though the backstreets of Tangiers, or reading books in any language with her fingers, acquires hers from her old friend Christopher Marlowe, also a vampire, although I couldn’t tell you why he’s aged more than the others, and wasn’t allowed to be all wafty and hot. (The internal logic of this film doesn’t bear thinking about.)
Eventually, after what seems like many hours, but probably wasn’t, Adam’s ennui becomes such that Eve must fly over to be with him, even though she could have been with him in the first place. Go figure. The two hang out and avoid sunlight and lie around as if they are in a painting and priggishly discuss the people they have known: Byron, Shelley, Schubert, Mary Wollstonecraft. They are the sort of vampires who, it appears, were always in the right place at the right time to encounter great minds, and now they wear their learning so heavily it’s a wonder they can even stand up. This may even be why, now I think about it, they have to lie about as if in a painting so much of the time. The film flickers to some life at around the halfway point — which comes after what seems like another several hours, but probably wasn’t — when Eve’s naughty, flirty vampire sister (played by Mia Wasikowska) turns up, and sets the cat among the pigeons, but then she’s dispatched, so it’s back to more lethargic mooching, as if the cat and pigeons never happened. (Come back, cat and pigeons; come back!)
Look, I can do slow pacing. I can do not much of a plot. Don’t I, in fact, usually rave about inaction films? Didn’t I, even, rave about Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, which was slow and plotless, pretty much? I can also do uncertain meaning, and this is awash with uncertain meaning. Are blood addiction and blood-dealers a metaphor for drug addiction and drug-dealers? When they talk about ‘zombies’ as the true plague upon the world, is that a reference to us, common-or-garden mortal humans? Is the wasteland that is now Detroit proof of this? But I would have to be motivated to care about the answers, and I was not. At some level, a film such as this must be intriguing, and it is not.
The narrative, such as it is, is not intriguing. The performances, as ethereal as they are, are not intriguing. And Adam and Eve may or may not be the first people on the planet, but certainly hail from The Garden of Interminably Dull. Honestly, if you had them round to supper, you’d look at your spouse afterwards and say: ‘Aren’t they the most boring, wafty couple ever? Never again. And why did they toy so with my shepherd’s pie? Everybody loves my shepherd’s pie.’ I suppose it is perfectly possible to like some of an auteur’s work but not all of it and that has to be the case here. So, for the moment, the cult can keep Jim Jarmusch, wherever it is they do keep him. (Somewhere self-consciously hip, I expect, rather than chained up out back, but you never know.)
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