Director Jim Jarmusch has managed an almost impossible feat with new film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – he’s made vampires interesting again. British actors Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, a pair of night-dwelling bloodsuckers. Eve is based in Tangiers where she hangs out with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who himself acquires blood from a French doctor and complains of his former literary glory: “I wished I’d met him before I wrote Hamlet.” Adam, meanwhile, is roosting in Detroit where he collects vintage guitars, composes funereal music and shuns the world.
Adam sates his thirst for the red stuff with regular visits to Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at a local hospital. He’s evidently suffering from ennui, and although Eve comes to stay with him, things only get worse when her sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), also turns up. “Families are always a bit weird,” says Adam, in one of the film’s many great understatements. In fact, understated genre pieces have been Jarmusch’s preferred area of expertise for years. Here it works perfectly, helped amply by his actors who get under the skin of their characters and show a genuine talent for comedy. The odd turn of phrase, edit or absurd situation provide the main laughs, and this is by far Jarmusch’s most successful feature in years.
Only Lovers Left Alive’s pace is insomniac slow as the vampires kill time between feeds. There’s a deliberate eschewing of cliché: they do their best to not prey on the outside world, or the ‘zombies’ as Adam terms them. He and Eve are the moral conscience of the world, complaining about the despairing dreadfulness of the modern age from the perspective of witnesses who have lived for centuries, read every book and met many of the most famous people in history. “Byron was a pompous arse,” says Adam. “Why am I not surprised,” responds Eve. It’s this kind of bland exchange which Hiddleston and Swinton pull off so well, suggesting a bored domesticity to their lives; an ordinariness which is miles away from the usual vamp glamorisation.
Adam, with his large black mane, looks like an anaemic goth; Eve, with her shock of blonde hair, is thus the yin to his yang as they curl up in bed and wait for night to descend. As with 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, nothing much happens for long stretches of Only Lovers Left Alive, but in the company of such fine actors – Hurt does some of his finest work in years as the world weary Marlowe – and with such an intelligent twist on a near-exhausted sub-genre, nothing much happening can be very fun indeed.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.