|Spectacles: Swinton/Hiddleston vs. Bowie/Denueve in The Hunger|
«« Only Lovers Left Alive. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. At selected theaters.
Casting Tilda Swinton as a vampire is about as brave as making Fred Thompson play a Senator. In Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, she's exactly what we expect: silver-haired, with opalescent skin, she prowls the suqs of Tangier in perpetual slow motion, looking for the "good stuff" ("O" negative). Along with her long-distance paramour Adam (The Avenger's Tom Hiddleston), she's a latter-day romantic aesthete, more desperate for literature and antique clothes than blood. Hiddleston, meanwhile, is a sucker for vintage musical instruments. They wear their sunglasses at night.
None of this is necessarily bad. Indeed, it was fine 31 years ago, when Tony Scott made the same movie and called it The Hunger. The connection between aestheticism and vampirism goes deep, mixed up with facile presumptions about drug-use and creativity usually made by people who are neither drug-users nor creative. Once we draw the line between vampires and sex, can the vampire-as-hipster be far behind?
Jarmusch's work has always been about striking moods. Down by Law (1986) is arguably still his best, but this critic has a soft spot for his deliriously odd revisionist Western, Dead Man (1995). Having emerged about the same time as the Coen Brothers, he seemed to hail from the same school of deliberately awkward moments. Trouble is, where the Coens expanded their repertoire to include comedy, action, and even musicals, Jarmusch has kept his seat in the coffeehouse, nursing his coffee and cigarettes.
In Lovers, he pretty clearly identifies with his vampire power couple—which stands to reason, given that he sports the same silver-hair-and-biker-boots look. Alas, hipster cool naturally entails hipster pretension: Swinton and Hiddleston scorn the mortals around them, calling them "zombies", bewailing the way they so "pollute" their blood as to make it unquaffable. How rude of them.
Setting has always been important to Jarmusch's films, and this one is as full of clichés about them as it is about vampirism. Hiddleston lives in a vagely fortress-like pile on the outskirts of Detroit, from which he surveys a vista of delicious (and predictable) urban decay. Swinton prefers old-town Tangier, with its small bookstores and tea-and-hookah places and air of ripe illicitness. The days of unapologetic "orientalism" are supposed to be over, but Jarmusch didn't get the memo—in his Tangier, young lovers make out hot-and-heavy on public streets, which they most surely do NOT do in most Muslim cities. (Well, at least if they don't want a bunch of horny young men watching.)
Swinton and Hiddleston are appealing players, and do the best they can to pump some blood into these threadbare choices. But it's a losing proposition. Jarmusch is a little late coming to the vampire craze, and not fashionably so.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro