The opening scene of “Only Lovers Left Alive” promises a far better movie than it delivers. A sea of stars in the night sky slowly reveal themselves to be grooves on a vinyl record; as soon as it starts spinning, we are shown bird’s eye view shots of vampire lovers Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) in bedrooms in different continents, as the camera keeps spinning. You’re left feeling beaten into submission by both vertigo and nausea, something that isn’t helped by the woozy psychedelic remix of obscure 60’s rockabilly song “Funnel of Love” that is perfectly in tune with the constant spinning. This opening scene promises an effortlessly cool variation on the vampire movie, in the same way as director Jim Jarmusch’s previous efforts like “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” reinvented the western and martial arts genres. Sadly, this is the first time in his career where it seems like he’s trying too hard to make something cool- meaning the end result is a boring, empty mess.
Adam is a reclusive musician living in Detroit, whose Velvet Underground-esque recordings have made him a cult figure on the underground music scene, much to his annoyance- he’s tired of the “zombies” who knock on his door every night trying to meet him. In fact, he’s bored of life in general, asking his hipster guitar dealer (yes, that’s a thing) to get him some wooden bullets- I mean, if you’ve been alive for centuries, of course you’re going to be bored to death by now, especially when centuries earlier you helped advance the careers of several famous scientists, and now you’re making shitty psychedelic rock records in a flat in Detroit. His lover Eve (no relation to THAT Adam and Eve, obviously) hears of his suicidal ways, and returns from her life in Tangier so they can reconnect, but not sexually because of the fact that vampires can’t get erections- in fact, this may be the first film I’ve seen that goes some way to acknowledge this. Soon, their cosy rekindled relationship is ruined by the appearance of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who gets in the way of their new found happiness, which includes eating blood flavoured popsicles and sightseeing across Detroit, where Jack White’s childhood home is considered a significant cultural landmark.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are undeniably great performers, and neither of them gives a bad performance here- but the fact the film requires them to play characters entirely bored of their lives means that both of their performances are entirely forgettable, but at least not as insufferable as the “self-loathing vampire” trope would be in other actor’s hands. In fact, the film is single handedly saved by Mia Wasikowska’s performance, which is pitched like a Twilight fan-girl who just happened to become a vampire along the way. Between this, “Stoker” and “The Double”, she is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses, something that is cemented by the fact she easily upstages two actors constantly at the top of their game.
Of course, the problem is that the film is trying too hard to be cool- it will automatically connect with hipster audiences, because it seems custom designed to do so. It is a distinctive Jim Jarmusch film, yet it ironically lacks the pulse that kept his previous efforts from slipping into hipster oblivion. So for everything that’s right with it stylistically, from the soundtrack to Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography that helps emphasise the loneliness of night time, there are multiple problems that can’t be solved by just looking and sounding cool. Jarmusch has forgotten the key rule- just because you’ve made a vampire movie doesn’t mean you have to make a film free of heart.