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TIFF 2013: ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ an empty promise

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Only Lovers Left Alive

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

USA/Germany/UK/France/Cyprus, 2013

How many times have you heard the coming of a new take on vampires in cinema? And how many times have you heard that call sounded with the participation of Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston and John Hurt, with direction from Jim Jarmusch? From the Blade and Underworld franchises to last year’s Byzantium and, yes, the Twilight series, vampires have taken to the screen more frequently of late with seemingly less to provide in the process. As the zombie genre frequently examines our human state through survival yarns or metaphor, vampires inherently present existential themes, such as mortality’s effects on humanity. Can Jarmusch capitalize on this chance to present these fanged icons of horror, romance, and philosophy the way we’ve long wanted to see them?

Only Lovers Left Alive opens with a bang: an immediately entrancing sequence of psychedelic music and visual characterization intercut with gothic credits against swirling cosmos. The sequence promises a feature saturated with the best of vampirism, dripping influences as diverse as Hammer Films and Anne Rice. But as soon as that sequence bows out, the best has already passed by.

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As suggested, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of vampirism is its practically immortal longevity – a curse to experience generation upon generation of growth and decay. Swinton’s Eve and Hiddleston’s Adam, each many centuries old, present varying worldviews through this alluring affliction. Only rarely do they pontificate on such matters, which makes sense for the reality of the characters despite coming off as a missed opportunity upon first glance. In fact, the only way the vampires shed light on their immense and vast experiences comes through historical figure name-dropping that would be Woody Allen-esque if not for its ill-fitting smugness and tiresome frequency. It could have been worse: Jarmusch observed during the North American premiere’s post-show Q&A, regarding his original script, “There were five times more references.”

Jarmusch is a self-professed avoider of cliché—and thereby Steadicam, by his own interpretation—and only intermittently hunts compositional beauty, achieving considerable success when he does. Thus, much of the film relies on its principal players’ mutually beneficial performances. From these further stems the condition of perpetuity. As opposed to brooding sheerly for appearances, the talent swells with motivation, rapture, and revolt lurking behind each subtlety. Hiddleston, his in-person presence signaled by feverish screams rivaling those for Benedict Cumberbatch at the cross-town The Fifth Estate red carpet at the festival, reflects as to what may be concealed within his grim portrayal, “After 400 years, you can keep the smile inside.”

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How many times, however, can we revisit vampires before even a relatively worthy attempt just feels rote? Only Lovers Left Alive is injured by the fact that its every examination of the non-philosophical nature of vampires is all too familiar. Of course a gentleman sitting near Eve accidentally cuts his finger and she has to repress her thirst. Of course Adam has a run-in with a hospital hematologist. And yes, everyone looks awkward opening their mouths unnaturally wide so we may ogle their fangs. Wasting precious screen time dwelling on these predictable details offers little beyond comic value, of which the film unexpectedly possesses an excess.

For the first time in recent memory, a title has arrived that at least begins to scrape deeper in to the existential potential of vampire characters. Sadly, this brief glimpse squanders its value by otherwise wandering traveled ground. A certain momentum carries much of the first act of Only Lovers Left Alive, though this theoretically intriguing meander soon becomes the film’s ultimate downfall despite the involved talent. Jim Jarmusch does not intend to analyze questions but simply to put ideas out there, and as a result, his product ultimately feels lackadaisical and aimless.

– Tom Stoup
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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