I recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s much-praised film Only Lovers Left Alive for the first time. The film is not plot-driven – it is a character study. And it is also a philosophical exercise regarding the meaning of time.
If you have lived for centuries, or maybe even millennia, the way you experience the passing of time has to be much different from the way in which mortal humans experience them.
On the one hand, endless time is a blessing. Think of all the books you will never find the time to read in your lifetime, all the films you will never find the time to watch. And so we witness with envy how the main characters in this film have all the time in the world to do just that, see and hear what they have read, or which famous events or persons they have come across (mind you, these characters are also special in that they seem to remember most of the things they have ever read or learned).
On the other hand, human existence passes before their eyes as in a time-lapse. And that carries its own risks. If you take your eye off the ball for even a moment, several decades of cultural and technological advancements may have passed you by. This happens in particular to Adam, the character played by Tom Hiddleston.
Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is great, with many frames beautifully composed, like individual works of art. Many items and locations are used as pieces of art as well: Detroit, Tangier, books, guitars and other instruments, and also a number of vintage electric/electronic devices and gadgets.
With Detroit in particular, but with other elements as well, there is a running theme of decay that resurfaces often in this film. And given Adam’s obsession with music, it is only natural that music also plays a huge role in this film, especially in terms of mood and atmosphere.
There is not much to say about the plot, as there barely is any. The film focuses on its characters, on the atmosphere of their world, and on the moods of their respective outlooks on life. Jarmusch is no stranger to putting character and atmosphere before plot. The way these characters interact – for example the interactions of Eve (Swinton) and Adam with Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) – hint at a lot of backstory that you never learn anything about, but the nature of which you may just glimpse from the hints that are being dropped or from the interactions you witness. In this way, large parts of Only Lovers Left Alive feel like a slice-of-life story.
The performances of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are outstanding. But while they dominate 90% of the film, there are also a number of supporting roles filled with a excellent actors: apart from Wasikowska these are Anton Yelchin, John Hurt, Slimane Dazi, and Jeffrey Wright. There is quite a bit of very subtle humour in this film, and as you would expect this cast is especially good at delivering these lines in the appropriate manner.
There really is nothing much to criticise in this film. Although I was irritated by the unnatural way of constant name-dropping in the film. Almost any conversation Eve and Adam have sooner or later leads to them talking about famous people from history they knew or to them asking each other questions about some famous person or other. Given the protagonists’ age and given that their conversations are meant to be natural, it seems unlikely that every person they talk about just so happens to be an immensely famous person. If you consider how many remarkable people they will have encountered who will have been completely forgotten over the centuries, any “natural” conversation between these two should include a large number of names we have never heard of.
The way they are written, these conversations often feel more like Jarmusch is simply ticking off a list of famous authors and musicians he admires.
Still, other than that, these conversations feel completely natural. They are every-day conversations drifting from games to dead poets to popsicles to teasing, etc. Although it might just be that Hiddleston and Swinton are just exceptionally good at selling those conversations.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a beautiful and slightly haunting film. If you don’t mind the “tiny” plot and the general slow pace, this “mood-piece” is absolutely worth watching. Although watching it I felt that I am probably missing out on some of the visual appeal because I am not seeing this on a big cinema screen.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
PS: The German DVD release does offer English audio only with embedded German subtitles that cannot be switched off. This is highly annoying and the first time I have witnessed this in a very, very long time.