BEIRUT: “Her name is Yasmine,” Eve says to Adam. Nodding in the direction of the earthy beauty on the stage before them, she smiles slightly. “She’ll be famous one day.” “I hope not,” Adam replies, looking crestfallen at the prospect. “She’s too good to be famous.”
“Only Lovers Left Alive,” the latest work by U.S. indie film eccentric Jim Jarmusch, defies easy classification and over its two hours it comes to resemble several things, albeit fleetingly. The shape-shifting work had its Beirut premiere at the European Film Festival Sunday evening, which served as an avant-premiere for its theatrical release at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.
The preceding exchange between Adam and Eve alludes to one of the film’s several motifs – a wry homage to “the music industry,” though it’s in the nature of their characters that the term is applied liberally.
The “Yasmine” to whom they refer is Yasmine Hamdan, the Paris-based Lebanese singer-songwriter who, accompanied by guitarist Marc Codsi, makes a cameo appearance in the film’s final act.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a composer himself, and his remark about Yasmine being fame-proof reflects something of his character – and a shard what Jarmusch’s film is “about.”
Like many brilliant artists, Adam composes for himself alone. He does allow his self-recorded work to sometimes seep into the wider world from time to time – though it sometimes does so independently of himself – and it’s good enough to have earned him a cult celebrity.
Adam guards his private life jealously, dismissing his worshippers as “zombies.” He retains a single, well-paid, personal assistant, Ian (Anton Yelchin), with whom he entrusts a range of tasks – from disseminating his work (anonymously), to creating rumors about his whereabouts to throw celebrity-seeking zombies off his trail, to acquiring classic electric guitars for him.
It’s an ambivalent and richly comic relationship. When Adam opens one of the guitar cases Ian’s brought him, and finds a 1955 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins G-brand Western model, (modified with a black-covered Gibson P-90 pickup) – the kind U.S. rockabilly hero Eddie Cochran used to play – he nearly smiles, then remarks, “Ian, you’re alright, for a zombie.”
When Ian points out that the cult celebrity he so hates has begun to feed off his reclusiveness, Adam emits a world-weary, “F**k.”
If Adam seems the sort of snobbish aesthete that regular guys all around the world like to despise, he comes by it honestly. He’s been in the music business long enough to have donated part of a string quartet to Franz Shubert (1797-1828).
Discussing his melancholy tendencies with her friend Christopher Marlowe, Adam’s wife Eve says she blames the indulgence on Byron (1788-1824) and Shelly (1792-1822), the two tragic romantic poets with whom he used to hang.
In addition to being a depressive musician, you see, Adam is a vampire. So is Eve (Tilda Swinton), who it seems is slightly older. For his part, Marlowe (John Hurt) is not only THE Christopher Marlowe (whose dates are conventionally thought to be 1564-1593), undead if not still living, he is also the man responsible for the oeuvre of William Shakespeare – whom Marlowe dismisses as “that illiterate zombie.”
Like many loving husband-wife couples, Adam and Eve are quite unlike one another.
The black-clad Adam retains a love for antique technology, from analogue sound equipment to Detroit-manufactured automobiles – though he’s devised a more-efficient electrical system for both his wheels and the rundown squat he lives in.
The antiquarian affections of white-swathed Eve reside largely in oriental design and literature – though terms like “antique” become elastic when centuries-old artists like Marlowe and Adam are still composing – and she’s fond of her (white, naturally) iPhone.
These differences of temperament appear to be among the reasons Adam and Eve live as expatriates (all the undead wear their English accents here) and do so separately – she in Tangiers, he in Detroit.
The story can really only begin when the black and the white come together, of course. Given Jarmusch’s fondness for American music – and the beautifully gloomy palette of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux – it’s only natural that Eve would take the story to the city that has been home to both the U.S. automotive industry and Motown records.
Adam tells Eve he is depressed at how the fearfulness of the zombies has nowadays taken full possession of their civilization. This world, he explains, is bereft of heroes.
Eve reminds him of his fondness for scientists. The zombies have destroyed science, he sighs, having either killed their greatest minds or bullied them into silence.
“Now,” Adam mutters, “they’ve even succeeded in contaminating their own blood.”
Aside from rarefied tastes (both artistic and dietary) the youthful-looking Adam and Eve share the health-caution of the very old. Like all connoisseurs, the undead appreciate rarity – so type O-negative is most prized – but no responsible vampire would dare feed on 21st-century humans the way they might have done in past centuries.
Too afraid to feed on zombies likely to be carrying blood-borne diseases, the formerly fun-loving undead have had to cultivate access to supplies of pure blood. Marlowe and Eve’s supplier is a kindly old French doctor, while Adam forks out sizable sums of dosh to a doctor on perpetual night shift at a Detroit hospital.
Adam’s exchanges are among the series of punning running gags Jarmusch has written into the story. Dressing himself up like a doctor en route to surgery, a late-1960s stethoscope draped around his neck, he steals into the hospital’s all-but-abandoned lab facilities, always unannounced.
To preserve their anonymity, both sides of the exchange wear different name tags with each encounter. On one occasion it’s Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson. On another, Faust becomes Dr. Caligari (who director Robert Wiene made famous in his 1920 horror film).
It is a regime of comic caution that flies in the face of vampires as they have been depicted in literature and film. Indeed, the masterstroke of the most-stylish vampire film in recent memory is that the nocturnal habits of its principal characters are almost secondary to the story.
Jarmusch’s story is less important that the jagged juxtaposition of images and aesthetics – nicely represented in a soundtrack that oscillates between the delicate strains of period string instruments and the distant roar of distortion-heavy electric guitar.
Like all vampire tales, however, this one has a moral. “How can you have lived so long,” Eve demands of Adam, “and not realized that such self-obsession is a waste of living?”
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