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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Only Lovers Left Alive: The one movie you MUST see next year.

Note: There are no plot spoilers in this post! I was going to hold off until the movie was on general release, but apparently that's not until Spring 2014 and I just couldn't wait.

I can't overemphasise how much I loved this movie. For sheer entertainment value it's tied with Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing for my favourite film of 2013, but it wins out in terms of sheer oddness and originality. The premise is already brilliant (Tilda Swinton! And Tom Hiddleston! As a pair of immortal vampire lovers!) but the plethora of promotional clips and images can't prepare you for what the film is actually like. Most notably, the fact that OLLA is genuinely -- and intentionally -- hilarious. I was lucky enough to see it at the BFI Festival in London this weekend, and the entire audience was laughing all the way through, often loud enough to drown out some of the dialogue. It's a delightful, sly kind of humour. Not remotely based on the kind of horror movie homage jokes you might expect from a movie that falls into the genre of "vampire romance".
Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Tangier.
OLLA avoids almost all cinema tropes associated with vampires, which is pretty impressive when you consider that people have been making vampire movies since the birth of cinema. Obviously the film retains some essential aspects -- blood-drinking, avoidance of sunlight -- but they're treated quite casually. There's also a noticeable absence of the kind of sexual/romantic vampirism tropes we're used to seeing, with the main vampire characters acting less like voracious, eternally youthful predators, and more like lethargic intellectual shut-ins. The focus is on Adam and Eve's relationship, and how their lives are shaped by immortality.
At one point Eve's little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) tells Adam and Eve that they're snobs: an accurate but not necessarily insulting summation. Eve is constantly surrounded by books, and her best friend is Christopher Marlowe -- another vampire, heralded by multiple Shakespeare jokes because director Jim Jarmusch is a Marlowe conspiracy theorist in real life. When you're several centuries old, you can't really avoid becoming an intellectual elitist, with our immortal vampire protagonists becoming understandably condescending towards humanity. While the word "vampire" is never actually uttered onscreen, Adam refers to humans as "zombies", depressed by the repetitive nature of their stupidity and destructiveness. But despite all the ageless hipsterism, it's Adam and Eve's mutual love of knowledge and new experiences that keeps them going. This may be an undead romance that takes place entirely at night, but it's still a very warm and affectionate film. As Eve explains to her husband when he's feeling low, "Life is about appreciating nature, surviving things, nurturing friendship, kindness, and dancing."

Of course Only Lovers Left Alive is a romance: it's right there in the title. I just wish there were more love stories like this in mainstream cinema. I love romance, but most "romantic" movies either weigh me down with dismally stereotyped gender roles, or are way too serious and depressing. Both problems caused by the genre being seen as girly and frivolous, unless it's couched in hours of agony, betrayal, and deceit. OLLA is a story about two people who find each other endlessly charming and appealing, which is a bizarrely rare occurrence in romantic movies. Most of the time, love stories are told from the beginning, or during a time of upheaval and strife. But with Adam and Eve, we're just getting a glimpse into the middle of an incredibly longstanding and complex relationship that could potentially last forever.
In that way, it may be the most romantic movie I've ever seen. Both characters have this immense fascination with each other, but it's completely relaxed and balanced, each accepting the other's faults. Not to mention the comforting physicality between the actors, who spend most of the movie draped all over each other. They have chemistry in a way that's oddly difficult to describe, because it's so rare to see a movie where the central romantic couple just lie around on top of each other all the time without it turning into a sex scene. When I first saw the above image of Swinton and Hiddleston together I assumed it was a one-off, but in fact every one of their scenes is like that -- and somehow, it never becomes saccharine or awkward.

Apparently Jim Jarmusch sold this role to Tom Hiddleston as "Hamlet, as played by Syd Barrett", which I find pretty hilarious because that description is Tom Hiddleston catnip. The character is perfect for him: the ideal comedy role for an actor who's known for Shakespearean angst and tortured antiheroes. And yes, he's very funny. Both Eve and the film itself have this wonderfully affectionate yet mocking attitude towards his depressive, angsty nature. It's not exactly a parody of sad goth moping, but it's not far off. He is truly suicidal, and it's presented as a serious aspect of his character, but it's offset by the fact that he's the archetypal misanthropic artist. Lurking in a house full of antique musical instruments, he accidentally spurs on his own cult-like fanbase of music nerds by refusing to have any contact with the outside world.
It's a long time since I was in a fully fledged vampire phase, but I still retain a real love of gothic media. And believe me, this movie is as goth as they come. Adam lives in a deserted house on the outskirts of bombed-out Detroit, wears nothing but black, and languishes in a permanent state of emo sulk. He's a beautiful study of the reclusive artistic genius, his human hanger-on Ian (Anton Yelchin) constantly in awe of his effortless cool -- which is mostly generated by his impenetrably self-absorbed, depressive nature, and love of wearing dark glasses at night. There's a scene where he plays Paganini's Caprice No. 5 on violin, while wearing an antique velvet dressing gown. Good luck finding anything more beautifully gothic than that.

There are some famous actors who only ever play parts who look like themselves. The worst examples I can think of are Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who both suffer from a combination of the Tim Burton Curse and having very eccentric dress sense in real life. Helena Bonham Carter's costumes in Les Miserables and The Lone Ranger are virtually identical to her clothes in real life, making it too difficult to differentiate between the actor and the character she's playing. And to a certain extent, Tilda Swinton does sometimes fall into that category. The difference is that she's a good enough actor to carry it off, even if there have been occasions when she dressed like Jadis the White Witch in real life. Her red carpet fashion choices may sometimes look like movie costumes, but that doesn't mean for a second that you don't wholly believe in her performance.
Eve's costumes were simultaneously Swintonesque and perfect for her onscreen character. Swinton likes to wear a lot of draped, tailored robes and suits, with an emphasis on fabric choices and very little reference to current fashion trends -- ie, very similar to Eve in terms of superficial appearance. Eve's clothes reflected her way of combining the timeless (embroidered robes) with the modern (pale suede skinny jeans), which contrasted with Adam's uniform of black jeans/black t-shirt, which he may well have been wearing for the past forty years. Their respective costume choices seemed to play around with the two characters' relationship with time, since Adam is (unintentionally) far more concerned with present-day events, while Eve sort of skates past without getting truly invested.
Eve's character may have superficial connections with the 21st century in the form of an iPhone and a modern-looking jacket, but being played by Tilda Swinton helps a great deal when it comes to seeming ageless and otherworldly. I also noticed that she looked a lot more contemporary in scenes when she'd be seen by humans, such as traveling on the plane (as a posh-looking middle-aged lady), or hanging out at a nightclub (where she and Adam wore their matching sunglaasses and leather gloves). Otherwise, she wears robes or gowns, unable to pin down to any fixed location or time period. Adam, on the other hand, is tied down by a huge collection of material possessions, obsessed with antique musical instruments and wearing clothes that immediately characterise him as a rock musician -- even if that's the one thing he doesn't want to be.
Aside from Adam and Eve, the rest of the costuming is minimal because the rest of the cast is minimal. Mia Wasikowska's character wears a girly babydoll dress that immediately sets her apart from the mature appearance of her sister Eve, while Anton Yelchin is a typical slouchy rocker dude, with a drawling voice to match. At one point John Hurt's Christopher Marlowe was supposedly wearing a 500-year-old waistcoat, but my favourite detail for his character was his crutches, which I believe (?) was a reference to the real Christopher Marlowe having a lame or broken leg.
If there's any justice in the world, Only Lovers Left Alive will end up with a serious cult following. Not only does it manage the near-impossible feat of being a fresh take on the vampire genre, but the worldbuilding is deliciously deep and rich compared to most movies aimed at a horror/fantasy audience. It really makes me wish that more so-called art filmmakers were willing to work with "genre" fiction rather than rejecting it as populist nonsense. Despite being a movie about culture snobs, OLLA disproves one of the favourite myths of current pop culture snobbery: that "paranormal romance" is purely the realm of shallow and frivolous storytelling. It's a complex and beautiful love story, blood-drinking and all.


  1. I saw this at the New York Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and agree wholeheartedly. The music, the pacing (soooo laaaaannnguid), the sets, the clothes, the actors, everything was magnificent. I can't wait for everyone else to see this so I can talk about it! haha!

  2. Great review! So sad I'll have to wait until Spring to see the film unless Sony takes pity on teh US and releases it sooner.

  3. I can't wait for this movie and this fantastic review just makes it so much worse! :D


  5. Ahhhh, this sounds really good and like ALL of my fave actors are in it? I'm sure it will do really really well!

  6. I liked reading this article and I enjoyed the move enough to see it 4 times, although that took some doing because it's not showing in a wide release. It's one of those films that gets into your head and it is extremely romantic. Practically anytime Adam and Eve are together on screen, they're touching. And the music - some really inspired choices. There's room for wondering how Adam met Ian and trusted him enough to let him into his house without it being a plothole. Adam and Eve had a third wedding - was it a renewal of vows or a separation and coming back together thing? I love movies that don't spoon feed you every detail and leaves room for the imagination.

  7. This may sound dumb, but I appreciated that the vampires didn't have shiny, bouncy, shampoo commercial hair. The frizzled, bedraggled look suggested they were aged people (and possibly that they don't need or have the inclination to wash up much).

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