TIFF Review: ‘Only Lovers Left Behind’

Spell binding tale of vampires made human
September 8, 2013 5:32 pm Last Updated: September 26, 2014 1:57 pm

TORONTO—Vampires aren’t always rich, powerful and darkly glamorous. Sometimes they are tired, weary of a world never as good as it was, and constantly unsettled by the “zombies.”

To vampire Adam, however, normal humans are “zombies,” stumbling along blissfully indifferent to the destruction of their world, void of the inspiration that led to the great works of art, music and literature that he and his timeless love Eve adore. 

Adam is a melancholic and reclusive musician played by Tom Hiddleston, best known perhaps as Loki from “Thor” and “The Avengers.” Detroit, where much of the film is set, suits Adam well. A slightly self-obsessed character, he laments the decline of humanity and pollution of the air, water and blood. He lives for his music and his one and only love, Eve, played with languid, ethereal grace by Tilda Swinton.

Detroit is a precursor of things to come for these ageless creatures who have seen it all.

Eve would have the hourglass turned over again, and a new world born after the famines and plagues. She notes there is water in Detroit, and when the south is afire, Detroit will have that key ingredient to life.

Hinton’s easy grace and delicate features have served her well in other supernatural roles as well, such as the White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the angel Gabriel in “Constantine,” where she played opposite Keanu Reeves. She strolls through the movie with a light-hearted kindness, beguiling the fact she likely used to eat humans. 

Whereas Adam ponders the idea of suicide, Eve emphasizes survival and seeks beauty, kindness, and friendship. We learn that the friendships of these vampires have played a huge role in some of humanity’s greatest artistic achievements. 

Unable to be famous past a lifetime, they pass on many of their works, greedily claimed by humans. 

In many welcome ways, “Only Lovers Left Alive” is not really a vampire movie. There are no scenes of ecstatically thirsty vamps slurping up scantily clad women or violent struggles against undead villains. 

These vampires are sophisticated and sentimental beings travelling through a world that is crumbling around them. Much of the film is set in rotting Detroit, a city of dying splendour whose most magnificent tribute to the arts, the Michigan Theater, is now an indoor parking lot dripping decorative moulding. 

These are not invulnerable creatures of the night. They get tired, sleep by necessity, age (though very slowly), and much like humans, must be wary of contamination—biological or industrial.

In some ways, director Jim Jarmusch’s only real motivation for bringing vampires to this story seems to be as a way to give perspective to a human society bent on quarterly reports and four-year terms in office. These are beings that have seen centuries and from their perspective, the true worth of human society is in its finest writers, musicians, artists and the enduring works they produce.

Adam sleeps on his couch in Detroit, surrounded by guitars, amplifiers and assorted instruments and equipment. Across the world, Eve sleeps on her bed in Tangiers, surrounded by piles of books that fill her room. 

We never learn why they were separated, only that they treasure each other while still maintaining dignified formalities like asking the other’s permission before entering their house. 

Jarmusch fills this richly layered film with hints of his broader ideas about what the world becomes to those who have watched it for centuries. It is filled with symbolism and broader ideas introduced gently in a way that propels the plot rather than burdening it. 

Not all vampires we meet are literary giants or musical geniuses. Eve’s younger sister Eva is a selfish psychopath and perpetual teenager. Where Adam and Eve peruse the finer things, she pulls up campy music videos on YouTube and murders easily. 

But then again, Adam and Eve seem to refrain from killing more out of the inconvenience than anything else. The 21st century is a terribly inconvenient place to dispose of bodies or avoid getting entangled in criminal investigations. And there is the problem of contaminated blood, which makes doctors essential suppliers.

“Only Lovers Left Behind” may disappoint those looking for the action and intrigue of regular vampire fare, but offers insight and intriguing symbolism for more cerebral viewers who like a smart, stirring film.