TORONTO – One of the things I’ve noticed when you’re at a film festival is that, more often than not, when you ask someone what they’re going to see, they will tell you by using the name of the director. “I’m seeing the Jason Reitman film.” “I’m seeing the Cronenberg movie.” “I’m seeing the Fincher.” I think the reason for that is it’s easier to remember whose film you’re seeing instead of the title when you’re going through roughly 300 titles or more. Many times, the reason I pick a film at a festival comes down to the director or the writer or the actors in it, and so that becomes what I remember about it as I’m looking at the schedule. Once I’ve seen a film, it becomes easier to talk about the movie, but you have to make a ton of choices at any festival, and that particular trick is the easiest way to keep the movies straight.
That’s my long-winded way of saying I kicked off this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with the new Jarmusch.
Written and directed by the 60-year-old iconoclast, “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a moody, sad, gorgeous little piece about vampires. I don’t think of Jarmusch as a genre director, and evidently, he doesn’t think of himself as one, either, because anyone walking into this expecting or wanting a horror film will leave bitterly disappointed. Instead, his film deals with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), a married couple who live apart from one another. He’s living in a nondescript building in Detroit, surrounded by low-fi musical equipment and rare instruments, while she lives in Tangier, where she spends much of her time with the urbane and charming Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). And, yes, that’s the real Christopher Marlowe, still alive and kicking and even occasionally writing.
The way Jarmusch portrays the lives they lead, he’s obviously interested in what day to day immortality would feel like and what it would do to someone, both emotionally and spiritually. Adam seems to be wishing his time would end, while Eve takes whatever sensual and tactile pleasures she can from the small things, like dancing. Adam has only one real connection to the outside world, a young local guy named Ian (Anton Yelchin), and other than that, he seems happy to hide from the world, writing and recording music that is for him, that’s not really meant for an audience. Hiddleston seems perfectly suited for this role, and he pulls off that particular Jarmusch trick of delivering some great laugh lines without ever telegraphing a joke or dropping the morose exterior. If they ever get around to turning Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” into a film, Hiddleston is the only man for the job at this point, and Adam appears to have stepped out of the pages of that book.
For her part, Tilda Swinton seems to be warmer than I’ve seen her in almost anything, and now more than ever, she strikes me as what would happen if someone managed to split David Bowie’s feminine side into a separate person, which would make this a fascinating second-half of a double-bill with “The Hunger.” She and Adam are not hunters, and they rarely even drain blood from a living person. They both seem to be satisfied just drifting through life as observers, watching the way things change, seeing people come and go. Once they are finally reunited, we can see the way they seem to fit around each other as people, and it’s lovely.
Mia Wasikowska shows up as Ava, Eve’s sister, and it feels like she’s crossed some line as an actress, now convincing as an adult, although Ava is a petulant one driven by whim. She lives her life almost as the opposite of Eve and Adam, and they approach her with a good deal of skepticism. Jeffrey Wright makes the most of a small supporting role, while Hurt scores some big laughs in his short time onscreen, also managing to etch a haunting portrait of a vampire past his prime.
In general, there is a confident tone to the film. Jarmusch is one of those guys I’ve loved for a long time as a director, even if I don’t love everything he makes. When he connects, his films have an ethereal quality to them, and they’re hard to shake. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who also shot the gorgeous “I Am Love” and the ambitious “Carlos,” takes full advantage of the locations here. His Tangier is a warm, exotic dream, and his Detroit is a fading Hellscape. And while this feels different than anything Jarmusch has done before, there’s just enough that’s familiar that I think it fits beautifully into the body of work he’s been building. Now I just hope Jarmusch meets a real vampire and gets bitten so that I can enjoy another 33 years of movies by him.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, although they have yet to set a US release date.