Cannes Check 2013: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Jim Jarmusch’s late entry, “Only Lovers Left Alive.”)

The director: Jim Jarmusch (American, 60 years old). Jarmusch may still be seen by many as the distinctively-coiffed crown prince of true US independent cinema — though he’s now the most senior American director in Competition. After graduating from Columbia with a degree in English literature, Jarmusch enrolled at NYU’s prestigious film school in the 1970s: he never graduated, but he did gain the close-to-death Nicholas Ray as a mentor. His thesis project, “Permanent Vacation,” became his debut feature in 1980; four years later, “Stranger Than Paradise” (an expansion of a short made the previous year) marked his auteur breakthrough, winning the Camera d’Or (even though it wasn’t technically his first feature) at Cannes, picking up further gold at Sundance and even taking the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture prize. It established the tone of delicate, sometimes romantic absurdism, shot through with nods to classic Americana, that has become his brand over nine subsequent features. 2005’s shaggy-dog romantic comedy “Broken Flowers” represented his nearest brush with the mainstream, though he ended that dalliance pretty emphatically with his last film, 2009’s defiantly opaque “The Limits of Control.”

The talent: Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton — words that, even five years on, still feel pleasingly odd to write — appears to be a new talisman of sorts for Jarmusch, as this is his third straight film to feature her. Joining her at the top of the bill (replacing the originally-cast Michael Fassbender) is rising star Tom Hiddleston, best known to some as Marvel villain Loki and to others as the elegant, stage-schooled star of “The Deep Blue Sea.” Mia Wasikowska, fresh from another auteur-horror hybrid this year in “Stoker,” completes the principal triangle; the supporting cast includes two-time Oscar nominee John Hurt, Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek,” “Like Crazy”) and French-Alegerian actor Slimane Dazi, who made a vivid impression in “A Prophet.”

As per usual, Jarmusch penned the screenplay himself; Oscar-winning British producer Jeremy Thomas is best known for his work with Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Last Emperor”), Nicolas Roeg (“Bad Timing”) and David Cronenberg (“Crash”). The below-the-line team is largely new to Jarmusch’s world. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who made his name with director Francois Ozon, has form in lighting Tilda Swinton’s angular visage: he also shot “Julia” and, spectacularly, “I Am Love.” Editor Affonso Gonçalves, ACE-nominated for Todd Haynes’s “Mildred Pierce,” has a strong track record in recent US indies: he cut “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Winter’s Bone,” among others. Production designer Marco Bittner Rossner was ADG-nominated as an art director on “Inglourious Basterds” and “V for Vendetta.” 

The pitch: We all know vampire films have been en vogue recently, but who would have guessed that the trend would claim Jarmusch? The hope, of course, is that the claim will be the other way round: it’s hard to imagine Jarmusch capitulating to genre convention, though this sounds darker and sexier than most of his work. Indeed, it’s hard to read the synopsis for “Only Lovers Left Alive” without thinking of Tony Scott’s influential but underrated “The Hunger”: Hiddleston stars as Adam, a vampire and underground rock musician who, weary of human lifestyle, returns to his lover of several centuries, Eve (Swinton), only to find their relationship disrupted when Swinton’s seductive, unruly younger sister Ava (Wasikowska) enters the scene. Any film that casts Swinton and Wasikowska as sisters knows at least partly what it’s doing; ditto any film that forges even a tenuous cinematic link between Swinton and David Bowie. If Jarmusch calls it a “crypto-vampire love story,” chances are it’ll be very “crypto” indeed — though, if this Adam-Eve business is anything to go by, not hugely subtle. Shot in Germany, Morocco and Detroit, this international co-production has been in post-production for some time — so whatever the reason was for its late entry into the Cannes competition (it was announced a week after the others), a scrambled finish wasn’t it. 

The pedigree: Jarmusch is a true son of the Cannes Film Festival, which has fostered him since his not-quite-debut “Stranger Than Paradise” premiered in Directors’ Fortnight, and won the Camera d’Or, in 1984. He made it into Competition two years later with “Down By Law,” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” represents his sixth stab at the Palme d’Or. 1989’s “Mystery Train” won a special award for Best Artist Contribution, while his last Cannes entry, 2005’s “Broken Flowers,” brought him closer than ever before to the big one, taking the silver-medal Grand Jury Prize. Still, he can, usually among his peers, boast a Palme d’Or in the short film section — won by “Coffee and Cigarettes (Somewhere in California)” in 1993. “Down by Law,” “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” all left the festival empty-handed, but with plenty of admirers.  

The buzz: Late entries into the Competition lineup can either turn out to be genuine trump cards (“The Artist”) or damp squibs (remember the groans three years ago when, after much hype, the party-crasher turned out to be Ken Loach’s “Route Irish”?). Interest in Jarmusch’s film is certainly high enough — thanks to the stars, the genre and its unlikely fit for the director — to ensure it won’t be met with a why-did-they-bother shrug, but one does wonder why it wasn’t in the initial announcement. Are some of the powers that be not wholly confident in it, or was there uncertainty over where it would play best? However it turns out, it’ll be one of the most keenly monitored films in the lineup.

The odds: Cannes would no doubt love to hand Jarmusch a full-size Palme d’Or one of these days, but sight unseen, this isn’t quite looking like his year. (Some will count its position as the last Competition film on the schedule against it, though that’s not always a disadvantage.) Competition between the heavyweight American auteurs looks to be tight (if, indeed, they don’t cancel each other out), and even if the film is an artistic success, sexy, chilly vampire romance isn’t the first place you’d expect jury president Steven Spielberg’s heart to lie. Cannes betting expert Neil Young gives it duly long odds of 33-1. Swinton, it’s worth mentioning, has never won Best Actress at Cannes, though that looks to be a fiercely contested award this year.

The premiere date: Saturday, May 25.

In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up the first of three Asian entries in this year’s Competition lineup: Jia Zhang-Ke’s “A Touch of Sin.”


Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s “A Villa in Italy”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Arnaud des Pallières’s “Michael Kohlhaas

Arnaud Desplechin’s “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian”

Amat Escalante’s “Heli”

Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past”

James Gray’s “The Immigrant”

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Grigris”