I have never been so admiring of Jim Jarmusch as have his acolytes, but he seemed the perfect choice to direct a vampire movie and had the good taste to include a scene of Yasmine Hamdan singing in a café, so I was drawn without resistance to ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. There is a lot of wit, and a measure of wisdom, in the film, which unfolds in the moodier redoubts of both Detroit and Morocco.
Vampires in the 21st century, of whom we meet four, dig cellphones and other modern devices and no longer feed directly on human beings, there being available a supply of voluntarily extracted hemoglobin, albeit through legally questionable channels. Occasionally a reckless young vampire, such as the one played by Mia Wasikowska, succumbs to her hormones and has a meal in the old way, but at the risk of banishment by her elders, such as those played by Tilda Swinton (a casting director’s dream to play a female vampire) and Tom Hiddleston (brooding and bohemian). I say “young” and “elder” but of course those are tricky designations if you are a vampire.
There is, in any case, a problem with the new, more humane arrangement favored by the older vampires. The degradation of the environment wrought by mere humans (whom the vampires denigrate as “zombies”) has contaminated the supply: a run-of-the-mill vial snatched from, say, the Red Cross, is dangerous to drink, and the pure stuff is harder and harder to find. Vampires, it turns out, can die of starvation. Not only that, but they can suffer from existential angst and contemplate suicide with wooden bullets; artistically inclined undead struggle to find inspiration after passing their heyday. John Hurt plays one Christopher Marlowe, who greets Swinton as “mistress mine” (ah, so she was the one!) and, it is revealed, was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, not murdered in a great reckoning in a small room, but “turned” while he still had plays to write. Hurt, ignoring the fact that everyone knows Shakespeare was really written by the Earl of Oxford, has great fun with this conceit, snarling from his craggy face at the bumpkin who usurped his fame.
Hurt, Swinton and Hiddleston, after the offending Wasikowska has been sent away, find themselves in a grave new world where death stalks even the undead. The choice before them is death from want of uncontaminated blood, or life from blood drunk directly from the veins of mortals (which is still, apparently, nourishing and delicious). To choose life by such means, abandoned, with moral prejudice, long ago? Or to decide on death in the face of an eternity of love? – for that is what Swinton and Hiddleston feel for each other. Jarmusch’s answer is psychologically credible and visually arresting. We do not see the moment when the choice they make is acted upon, shortly after seeing the undulating Hamdan sing in the café, but we know well enough what it will be.
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