Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bored to Death: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE


Living a life as long as the average human lifespan can get pretty boring. Days can pass slowly, tasks growing monotonous. Maybe depression sets in. The great George Sanders, the actor who gave us, among many fine performances, All About Eve’s droll theater critic Addison DeWitt, committed suicide at the age of 65, his note reading, in part: “I am leaving because I am bored.” It’s a tragedy, to be sure, and one that the pale and reclusive Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is contemplating. He simply feels he’s been alive for so very long, finding his days – no, his years – passing in a blur of moping around his dilapidated and cluttered house in an abandoned corner of Detroit. Occasionally he rouses himself to noodle with his beloved antique instruments and archaic technologies, sometimes composing a song. He orders a custom-made bullet to be made out of dense wood and thinks he might shoot into his heart for real this time. You see, he’s a vampire, and the endless centuries have grown dull. You think living 80, 90 years seems daunting? Try 800, 900 years, or longer.

This is the world of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire movie that thrums to its own frequency, vibrating on a chill and melancholic mood. It’s not a horror movie, or rather, not exactly a horror movie. It’s more a come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-vampirism party, a slow and consuming hangout movie with ghoulish and existential underpinnings. It doesn’t move quickly so as not to break the spell. Adam is quiet, still, contemplative. His wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), leaves her home in Tangiers to come for a visit, blaming all the time spent with Romantic poets a couple centuries ago for her husband’s current funk. They move on a different time-scale than ours, able to big-picture our mortal world, sighing at our stasis, our cyclical crises. They watch humans making a mess of the world from the helplessness of the shadows. They’re tired of us. Says he to she, “They’re still fighting over Darwin. Still.”

The vampires of Jarmusch’s imagination here are neither suave bloodsuckers nor skulking monsters and they certainly aren’t out stalking human prey. No, they sit at home, sleep all day and sulk all night. They’re cultured, have read all the great books, seen all the great art, heard all the great songs. They have all the time in the world to appreciate their surroundings, but are tired of doing it and seeing human failings endlessly repeated. When hungry, they just go the blood bank and bribe their usual accomplice (Jeffrey Wright) for the bags of liquid life they need to sustain themselves, sipping small amounts for nourishment and what seems like a bit of a high. The camera pushes forwards as they tip their heads back, eyes ecstatic, mouth agape in dopey fangs-baring grins.

The vampires rarely go out, at most driving down dark, empty streets. Adam has something like a human buddy, a young man (Anton Yelchin) who stops by with vintage music equipment for sale and acts as a middleman between the secret vampire and Detroit’s underground music scene. He and the blood doctor are the film’s only connection to the human world. Jarmusch spends the runtime immersed in the day-to-day drudgery of these vampires, intensely observing the loneliness and alienation of the marginalized. What’s more marginal, fringe, than being literally unable to step into the daylight? They are in the world without being of the world. There’s an authentic ice-cold elitism in their attitudes, superiority and isolation accumulated over the centuries.

Hiddleston and Swinton are convincingly vampiric with flowing hair and dark eyes in ghostly white faces accentuating their cheekbones. When they go out at night, they wear sunglasses. They’re cool. They move deliberately and with grace, totally comfortable with their bodies and with each other, romantically entangled for what seems like hundreds upon hundreds of years. Of course, after centuries of practice, you would be awfully comfortable, too. These are enigmatic performances, drawing focus in any given frame with nothing more than their presences. Confident performers, they use stillness and quiet to great effect, engendering great curiosity with a strong sense of history and sadness. The vampires have had time to cultivate both. They have seen and experienced so much and yet only have each other to share it with.

A few others of their kind drift into the picture. One is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Yes, that Marlowe. He’s just a little bitter that Shakespeare took credit for his plays on the small technicality that everyone thought Marlowe was dead. Oh, well. A secret is a secret. Another guest is Eve’s adopted sister (Mia Wasikowska). They haven’t seen her in 87 years. She’s clearly a younger vampire, relatively speaking. Inhabiting the body of a blonde party girl, she embraces entirely unselfconsciously her status as a flighty, impulsive, adorably energetic disruption and danger to her relatives’ stasis. She crinkles her nose in an ingratiatingly cute way, but she’s as needy as she is deadly. “You know how it is with family,” Eve deadpans. The story, such as it is, concerns the way these characters interact with each other and with the world of the humans, but it’s mostly an intoxicating mood piece and character study.

The film’s characters are written with bone-dry wit of a familiar Jarmusch style, speaking leisurely and precisely in diction that’s bookish, moody, and in keeping with deliberately paced actions, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s brooding slowly or unmoving shots, and the sound design’s extended patches of silence mixed with the low throb of a score. It coheres as a picture of a long, slow, philosophical existence. The vampires are often condescending, secure in the knowledge that they’ve seen so much and understand the world from a large first-hand sample size of history that the humans around them have no hope of catching up. They stick together because only another vampire can understand the particular, peculiar, entrancing boredom of immortality.

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