Fangs for Nothing

left: Only Lovers Left Alive poster, 2013
above: Tilda Swinton photographed by Craig McDean for AnOther Magazine, Spring/Summer 2009

Only Lovers Left Alive
directed by Jim Jarmusch

Tonight I had the opportunity to see and hear Tilda Swinton onstage at Los Angeles County Museum’s Bing Theater. The occasion was the L.A. premiere of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as vampire lovers as old as Time itself.

Swinton has been a goddess of mine since Derek Jarman's Caravaggio (1986) –– since she, as Lena, joyously exclaimed "Mine!" to Ranuccio (Sean Bean)'s question, "Who's child is it?” Jarmusch this night was at the South by Southwest festival premiere of the film, so Swinton was to do the Q&A following the screening. And, although I did finish the film, I didn't stay for Swinton’s talk. That's how bad the film was.

The first thing you see is stars. I don't mean the slick, faux-3D, CG stars you’re used to seeing in 2014, or in 2006, when this movie was being shot. These are incandescent-light-behind-holes-in-cardboard stars, over which bright red Gothic letters cheesily announce "a Film by Jim Jarmusch." And the whole mess is rotating, which turns into revolving vinyl on a precious antique record player emanating loud, turgid stoner music –– dissolving into our star Swinton, also rotating, in a gorgeous North African robe stretched out on a divan, presumably listening to the stoner sludge.

Ten minutes in –– no, make it two, make it 20 –– you know this is going to be a movie about eternity. By that I mean by whichever time marker you choose, it is glaringly apparent that this movie is about the vampire lifestyle, which in this film is a thinly disguised hipster lifestyle, namely Jarmusch's own. Consequently, nothing happens.

Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) are a married couple living their undead lives across the ocean from each other, she in "mysterious" Tangier, he in decrepit Detroit. Adam is a reclusive one-man-band recording phenomenon (doing Anne Rice one better); Eve is a glamorous expat. They Skype each other, she on her state-of-the-art iPhone, he on his outdated WebTV. They procure their sustenance, she at a seedy café via haggard old fellow vampyr John Hurt; Adam, disguised as a doctor, makes his blood deals in a hospital where his "contact" tries out all the movie "doctor" names on him –– Dr. Faust, Dr. Strangelove, etc. (but forgets Mabuse and Red Beard). Adam and Eve retreat to their own dens to sample the wares from dainty goblets and sink back into pillows like junkies with their ambrosia. All of this is done with abundant slo-mo's and even slower dissolves meant to justify the protracted length of the music we have to endure.

Ten minutes in, Hiddleston's Adam asks his human friend for a wooden bullet, and all you students of the genre will say, “Oh, wow, a twist on the wooden stake and silver bullet.” Yes, danger is introduced into the “story,” but it never comes to anything, except to flirt with Adam's so-hip desire for self-annihilation.

Gags on antiquated technology abound, and they’re not remotely funny, considering the ubiquitous high regard in which they’ve long been held by cool-people segments of society. The antique hipsterism extends to Adam's guitar collection –– probably Jarmusch's own –– and Eve's collection of rare books (ditto) and portraits of cultural icons on the wall. Better lifestyle statements have been made on Pinterest boards.

Forty minutes in: Absolutely nothing has happened.

Fifty minutes in, Swinton speaks one line that raises our expectation that the film could possibly show some self-awareness. Finding the wooden bullet, her Eve admonishes Adam, "Haven't you learned anything in all these years? All this self-absorption, it's a waste of living!" Yet the film just sinks back into another musical segment, which by then begins to all sound like the same lukewarm bathwater of drone and feedback. Eve produces a blood popsicle out of the freezer and Adam discusses "tasting" Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (another opportunity missed –– Byron was one of the first of the Romantics to introduce the concept of vampires from the Islamic world).

Sixty. Minutes. The lovers check out an urbexer dream abandoned industrial building and discuss an impending visit from Eve's sister. Expectation raised again: Oh, wow, new blood! Until Mia Wasikowska lands on their couch dressed, made-up and acting like Lindsay Lohan on a bad day. Her name isn't Lilith, she's Eva (I bet even God wouldn't have named two sisters Mary and Maria). Eva acts like a petulant teenager who found her sister and brother-in-law's stash. She manages to kill Adam's human friend, squeezing another snicker out of the half-dead audience. She also breaks the neck of Adam's acoustic guitar –– which Eve had admiringly confirmed to be from 1905. Oh, so you did have a prop department.

The rocker and his blonde muse end up in Tangier –– Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg redux, just change the substance they’re dependent on. Starved out of their wits, they hear a Moroccan girl singer in a café who has so much life in her as to make you think that this 123-minute movie could have easily been cut down into two three-minute music videos.

By the time the movie was over, I felt so wretched about Tilda Swinton having to answer questions about this awful mess. It's true, Only Lovers Left Alive shows a sort of integrity if you like Jim Jarmusch’s style-over-substance school of filmmaking. But his style sucks, hasn’t changed a bit for 30 years and, unlike his protagonists, hasn’t aged well. (And yes, I have seen movies where nothing "happens," yet so much does, for example Wim Wenders' Alice in Cities.) I never held Jarmusch in high regard and only went to this screening for the opportunity to hear Tilda Swinton, whose State of the Cinema address at the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival proved she was a brain and had a passion that matched her ageless beauty. Had I stayed, though, I know I'd have raised my hand just to say, "You almost saved the movie."
–– Rika Ohara

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