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I saw this last weekend with ms_siobhan at one of (I think) two showings put on by the Hyde Park Picture House, and as part of an audience of about thirty people. This of course reflects the fact that the film sadly hasn't done terribly well at the box office. Although Leeds' big city-centre multiplex did show it, already by the second week after its release it was only showing there once a day in late evening slots, which is why we decided to hold out for an independent showing at a more civilised hour instead.

We were lucky, and the setting was perfect. The Hyde Park Picture House celebrates its centenary as a working cinema this year, and is all but unchanged, both inside and out, so that during the scenes within the film when Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) stand in the dilapidated remains of the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, our own surroundings felt like a (less dilapidated!) extension of the same setting. But still, the place wasn't exactly packed.

I can understand why this is. Only Lovers doesn't really have a narrative in the conventional style. Rather, it offers a slow portrait of its two main characters, Adam and Eve, moving them through a series of situations and building character through their reactions, but without any very strong sense of a focused overall trajectory. Indeed, that is rather the point - as vampires, freed from the constraints of mortal life-spans, they have no driving sense of purpose, and part of what the film does is to explore how they respond to that, and how it changes their perspective on the world around them.

For the more melancholy Adam, the answer has been largely to retreat into his music, while becoming increasingly disillusioned with humanity. For Eve, it seems rather to have involved learning everything she possibly can about the world she inhabits. She speaks with wonder of far-distant planets; greets every plant and animal she sees with its scientific name; and packs nothing but the most precious volumes from her extensive book collection when she travels. And through the eyes of both we see how different humanity looks from a longue durée perspective - the rises and falls of civilisations, the importance of cultural and technological achievements, and the relationship with the environment all painfully clear from the vampires' perspective, but tragically under-valued by humans unable to see beyond their own life-times.

There is a lot to say for this sort of material if you know what you're getting, and if you like that sort of thing. I had read reviews and synopses in advance, was pretty sure it would be up my street, and wasn't disappointed. But it is neither a conventional vampire film, nor indeed a conventional film of any kind, so I can see why mainstream audiences may have been put off.

As well as being slow to build, the portrait of vampire life which the film offers is also impressionistic, with endless details referred to in passing without ever being fully explained. How long exactly have Eve and Adam been alive? We know that she is older than him, as she speaks of him having 'missed all the fun' of the middle ages, but the details are never spelt out. We know that from their perspective, most human blood has now become contaminated, to the extent that it seems to kill off Christopher Marlowe (who, we learn, became a vampire rather than dying in 1593, and went on to ghost-write most of William Shakespeare's plays) towards the end of the film. But what is the contaminant - medication, food additives, disease? Again, we never know.

Nor do we know how Eve and her 'sister' Ava are actually connected; whether 'Adam' and 'Eve' are the main characters' real names (which seems very unlikely); when they first married, if they did so for the third time in 1868; what exactly happened in Paris in 1928; how it is that vampires seem to be able to 'feel' how old things are by touching them with their hands; and so on, and so forth. Personally, I love this approach to story-telling - assuming, of course, that the story and its characters are captivating enough themselves in the first place. It provides so much scope for further input from the viewer / reader, holding out the threads for us to weave into our own interpretations. It is utterly characteristic of genre fiction of all kinds, and is why it generates so much fanwork in response. But again, it's not for everyone.

The film is rich, too, with intertextual references and details of props and settings which viewers are invited to make more of, but with no particular direction as to what exactly we should do with them. Adam's approach to technology is one. He's clearly au fait with YouTube, wifi and digital recording technology, yet he still also uses cathode-ray monitors, reel-to-reel tape recorders and vintage guitars. It tells an implicit story of his long-term, out-of-time perspective, mashing together his preferred technology from all of the different eras he has lived through - but the point is never made explicit. The same goes for the portraits of cultural icons visible on his wall (Bach, Thelonious Monk, Buster Keaton, Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Christopher Marlowe); the many identity documents spread out in front of Eve whenever she makes a travel booking; the pseudonyms which Adam and his contact uses when he goes to collect blood from a local hospital doctor (Dr. Caligari, Dr. Watson, Dr. Faust); the titles of Eve's favourite books; and the settings of decaying Detroit and liminal, multi-cultural Tangier where they have each chosen to live.

There is much, much that can be got out of digesting all this and thinking through its implications for the characters and their stories - but if you don't already have the knowledge-base to do so, you're left with a directionless story featuring remarkably little in the way of action or horror shocks. Maybe it is pretentious to make a film like this, or to enjoy the sense of self-satisfaction that comes with 'getting' the references. But it would be depressing to think that richly intertextual films which demand something of their audience could not be made just because not everyone will 'get' them, when there are plenty of people out here who will, and will take pleasure in doing so. It is just a case of marketing them in the right way to the right audiences. This one may not have set the mainstream cinema circuit on fire, but I can see it enjoying a solid career at film festivals and on DVD for many years to come.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2014 08:41 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed it too, once I'd reconciled myself to the slow pace. Sad that the audience in Leeds was as small as the one in York.
Mar. 31st, 2014 09:50 am (UTC)
Excellent review, sums up very well what I thought of it as well. I'm very glad that films like this are still made, with good quality actors, in this era of big, dumb action movies and endless sequels and prequels. At least someone in the film industry recognises there are still people with intelligence and imagination who don't need everything spoon-fed to them.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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