What would life be like for vampires if they lived among us, controlling their bloodlust and mostly feeding peacefully instead of sinking their teeth into human necks? In Only Lovers Left Alive, which had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week, the acclaimed indie director Jim Jarmusch offers a sophisticated meditation on the inner lives of two otherworldly creatures trying to exist in modern times.
At the center of the film is the reclusive rock star Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who's mired in depression, composing funereal songs. His free-spirited wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), a lover of books and language and dance, is more optimistic and modern. Though they are both centuries old, she uses an iPhone while her Luddite husband clings to his old corded phone. She listens to digital tracks, he prefers vinyl. She lives in the colorful and vibrant city of Tangier; he in economically ruined Detroit. Sensing her husband’s melancholy, she says she will come to see him — and buys a plane ticket, traveling like a mortal.
Shortly after her arrival, Eve's wild-child sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), pops in after 87 years. Will she disrupt the couple’s quiet assimilation into the 21st-century?
Jarmusch told the TIFF audience that it took about seven years to get the financing to make the movie and Swinton — who wasn’t in Toronto for the premiere — stuck with the project the whole time. "We made this film last summer in seven weeks over three continents and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life," he said.
Only Lovers Left Alive — which will get a theatrical release in April — isn’t merely a vampire story, or a love story, or even a story of survival. Adam misses a richer, more cerebral time in literature and music, and references to the greats of these arts are woven throughout the dialogue. He is suicidal because he has to live out the 21st century.
Hiddleston doesn’t see Adam as a negative figure, he said after the film. "We all contain multitudes. This is just a moment in his life where actually his melancholy, his darkness, comes from an extraordinary optimism, or capacity for the appreciation of real beauty. So if there’s a sadness in him, it’s actually just the polar opposite of the other extreme, which is his emotional capacity for joy.
"And you know," he added, "after 400 years, you can feel a smile on the inside." The audience laughed.
Despite its dour protagonist, the film offers enough humor to keep it from being too depressing.
"There are some kind of heavy themes in the film about what humans are, what they’re doing, but when you see the film, there’s a lightness that I’m happy is in there," Jarmusch said after the screening. "It wasn’t so clear to me while making the film. Of course, I always try to make funny things in front of me, but I’m happy. I’m hoping there’s a balance of those themes, but they’re delivered with a kind of lightness as well. I can never analyze what it is."
Asked by one audience member what he thinks happened to Adam and Eve, the director said, "I love that question — because I hate when films end, the curtain draws, and that’s it. I like to think of them still existing. I’m not sure."