My housemate Cecilia and I went to see this film the other night. We did so in flagrant disregard of the Benedict Cumberbatch rule, namely “Do not watch a movie, TV episode, or miniseries for no other reason other than one actor you like is in it.” The one actor in question is, unsurprisingly, Tom Hiddleston; we’re fans of his, nor are we opposed to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, or the rest. Sadly, none of them could save Only Lovers Left Alive from a deadly (undeadly?) slow pace.
First, the good: as a whole, the movie certainly catches a quality, a flavor. It’s dark, coppery, and not very pleasant, but it’s certainly there in Eve’s brisk walk through Tangier (the most feminine I’ve ever seen Swinton), in the grungy melancholy of Adam’s house, in the streets of Detroit. Cecilia found this depiction of Detroit rather refreshing: instead of focusing on the city as the capital of crime and corruption, the movie focuses on its musical contributions, the grittiness of its urban blight, and its hope for better things. Eve notes the importance of the lakes all around, saying “This city will rise again.” Why she doesn’t go for the original Latin, Jim Jarmusch only knows. But then, Adam is the one in residence there. Caught in the 1970s as he is, his affinity for the city indicates that both hope for better, but neither really changes.
That stagnant quality of endless days might account for the sluggish plot. This is the most charitable explanation that comes to mind: that vampires, having spent centuries of darkness watching all that the “zombies” (ie, humanity) have to show – all the art, the music, the scientific advances – are doomed to ennui, to anomie, to acedia, and (should no sunlight, contaminated blood, or immortal beloved interfere) to suicide. The story arc, such as it is, might just be one more postmodern conceit for human lives with no overarching narrative, no implicit meaning. The lack of chemistry between Adam and Eve might have been intentional, depicting the natural consequence of being married for some 200 years. Sparks, fire, fizzle, distance, regroup. They try to patch it over with allusions to quantum entanglement, Adam describing them as particles which affect each other though they be a universe apart. Perhaps Donne could make that metaphor work; this script can’t.
The less charitable and possibly more realistic explanation for the film’s torpidity is poor writing and an undeveloped plot. At some points it was like watching Catcher in the Rye but with vampires in. There are amusing moments – Adam burying his head under the pillow to avoid Eva, Eve’s iPhone calling Adam’s curious corded setup, the wrinkle of disgust that crosses Eve’s face on watching a body dissolve – but for the most part, neither Adam nor Eve compel me to care much about their undead existence or their butter-scraped-thin romance. By far the most interesting character was Eva, Eve’s younger sister. She is obnoxious, she is careless, she drinks them out of their fugue-inducing O-negative – and she somehow remains lively, as Adam and Eve do not. We left the theater wondering how she spent her time in LA, how she’d offended Adam in 1925 in Paris, what bloodletting would attend her trip back west.
Possibly devotees of artistic films would appreciate details that I missed. There are a number of overhead shots, a heavy-handed motif which attempts to connect the spinning of the stars, of records, and the eponymous lovers. Adam takes a look at all manner of classic guitars, so perhaps Gibson fanboys would be into that. Those with a dog in the fight over the author of Shakespeare’s plays might be amused when Christopher Marlowe turns up. But for my own part? Speraveram meliora. I’d hoped for better. They’re hardly lovers, and barely alive.