Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s instant vampire classic tastes entirely fresh, despite the surfeit of entries in the bloodsucking genre of late. I guess we should expect nothing less of the idiosyncratic auteur who previously delivered indelible takes on the western (Dead Man) and gangster genres (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai). Only Lovers Left Alive is a gorgeous, luxurious, melancholy yet invigorating affair, draped with delectable performances and quietly boasting a distinctive and seductive take on the lore. If the likes of Twilight have done their best to dispel the mythos and drain it of fascination and lure, Only Lovers galvanises and replenishes it. It’s a diamond in the current rough of the genre, and one of Jarmusch’s, no slouch even at his lowest ebb, best films. It is, simply, a delight.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a reclusive vampire, musician and amateur scientist living in Detroit. Over the centuries he has influenced famous figures to the extent of giving them material yet now he finds himself withdrawn and despondent. He requests local wheel-dealer Ian (Anton Yelchin) to secure him a wooden bullet, with which he can end it all. Adam’s introspective funk is interrupted by the return of wife Eve (Tilda Swinton). She embraces and takes pleasure in the opportunities nourished by a vampire existence every bit as much as Adam finds disappointment in it. Eve lives in Tangier with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who, like Adam, has influenced the considerably more famous. Together, Adam and Eve are simpatico. But their reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a wild child out to have a bloody time and cause as much disruption as possible.
There’s no doubting that the lineage of Jarmusch’s vampires – literate fashion-conscious, and artistic of bent – comes by way of Anne Rice, but Only Lovers is not concerned with Rice’s “metaphor for lost souls” or questions of good and evil. And, if it presents a milieu in which vampires (mostly) no longer feast on humans (“zombies”), it has little interest in establishing a political text to this à la True Blood (there’s no subtext in that series, it’s all right there). The most one could say is that it is now politically incorrect to kill; there is certainly no preoccupation with moral imperatives (it’s also a nuisance to clear up afterwards). While Jarmusch’s principal character is a tortured (soul), this comes not from an existential crisis over his warring nature but simple basic disillusion with the wretched mess humanity has made of the world.
Jarmusch also eschews Rice’s erotica of feeding, replacing it with overtly chemical reactions. In a number of respects, Only Lovers at times feels like a vampiric version of Drugstore Cowboy. There are overdoses, bad batches, threats of discovery by the authorities and interior processes of the addict’s existence. The vampire as junkie has been done before, but not so reverently. Jarmsuch lingers on the blissful high that comes from feeding (the camera lingers above ecstatic faces pointed heavenwards, bloodied mouths locked in trouble-free open smiles) just as he plays with the junkie’s language (“Is that the really good stuff?”, “I got some bad stuff”). During one stunning moment, a Tangier dealer offers Adam, “I have what you need”. The vampire rears towards him threateningly, with an emphatic, “NOT what I need”; the dealer retreats nervously into the darkness.
There’s much ritualistic behaviour; vampires drinking in unison, with drug hazes drifting into the small hours (of course). The pupils of this breed of the undead dilate when scenting blood (Adam memorably fixates on a wounded leg in hospital). Bad blood can kill these them (which makes one wonder how they got by during previous plagues and epidemics). We also see the care Adam takes to conceal “his addiction”, reluctantly drinking blood in a club when Eve and Ava do so first, with public displays running counter to his more cautious instincts. Likewise, he has very specific ways and predilections; Ava blunders carelessly into their world like a not-so bright young thing on the way to her next rave, energised while Adam would rather wilt haughtily.
Yet it would do the picture a disservice to define it purely in such terms. If Only Lovers is to be read as a junkie tale, it is certainly not a cautionary one. Rather, it is most defined by the seductive life of the aesthete; this is Jarmusch’s vision of your not so friendly neighbourhood vampire. Aesthetes and the love that unites them. Part of the picture’s appeal is how overpoweringly united Adam and Eve are, even when they are apart. Theirs is a perfect, wish-fulfilment bond; humorous, honest, passionate, mature (“Can’t you tell your wife your problems?” asks Eve of her morose husband).
Jarmusch presents them very consciously as ying/yang forces. Adam dresses all in black, his long lank hair and leather trousers suggesting an ‘80s throwback medley of goth and rocker. Eve, also wild of hair (it’s clearly a vampire mirror thing, although there are no bald vamps here) is contrastingly clad in white, near-albino, right down to her i-phone. Jarmusch isn’t afraid to overstate his case in any aspect of the picture (“Mephitis mephitis” observes Eve of a monochrome skunk greeting her outside Adam’s abode), but most of the time he gets a free pass because the world is so intoxicating. We sense that while these two are together they will endure, and we want them to, living exemplars of quantum entanglement theory.
Adam and Eve are highlighted by both their love of each other and their love of art and finery. They are, particularly Adam, cultural magpies. He surrounds himself with musical instruments of great age and beauty (an early scene finds him exulting with Ian over classic guitars) (“I once saw Eddie Cochran play one of these,” he comments before qualifying it with a hasty, “Yeah, on youtube”). Adam is interested in the craft and the true expression of skill. And invention. He waxes as lyrical about science as he does music, but devotes himself to the lost geniuses such as Nikola Tesla; it’s only appropriate that an underground dropout artisan should prize a rejected and alternative scientist.
And Jarmusch revels in this mix of drugs and imaginative, freeform conceptualising. The line between science, art, and mysticism is a thin veil, an alchemical concoction best illustrated by the scene in which Adam reveals his crackpot generator in the basement; it is based on a Tesla design (“receiving electrical information from the atmosphere”). Growing nearby are fly agaric mushrooms, a gateway to another plane of thought, growing when they shouldn’t be growing (“Just goes to show, we don’t know shit about fungi”) When Adam comments that life on this planet couldn’t exist without them, it’s clear that Jarmusch is indulging favoured whimsies and themes by propelling them from the mouths of those who know better; the experienced and know-howed. The current state of science is not favoured by Adam, as their greatest has been rejected and destroyed (“so much for the scientists”).
Adam has the air of the learned and cultured (Eve consumes but feels less need to hold forth; she experiences and takes pleasure), so his conceits are much more palatable than they otherwise would be. Urbane but unhappy. When he explains all about a white dwarf that is a diamond that emits the music of a gigantic gong, we think he must have been shooting up or indulging some half-cocked poetry. Except that he’s dead-on. His techno-lash ups are like a curious ‘70s version of steampunk; he spurns the 21st century sleekness of Skype Eve for a cathode ray tube. It’s an appealing vision of one who has values, even if this might be interpreted as Jarmusch looking towards a nostalgic ‘80s reverie, when times were so much clearer. Only Lovers may not be as steeped in the mechanics of vampiredom as The Hunger, but it is spiritually of the same era and carries a similar sense of a strong emotional through line complemented by stylistic foregrounding.
I don’t think Jarmusch is lacking in self-awareness of what he’s presenting here. Adam’s indifference to the antique stethoscope everyone else remarks upon highlights his own selective sense of culture and achievement (his aged dressing gown likewise; one thing about vampires, they do like their bathrobes). The elitist tendencies, as exemplified by the induction of Jack White into not just the rock hall of fame but alongside any other great creative, cultural, or artistic force that should be so namedropped (yes Jack White sits in hallowed company alongside Shakespeare, Schubert – for whom Adam composed a string quartet, Tesla and Byron), are a bit rich. White is a “true spirit”. But isn’t White the middle-aged classic rockicist’s idea of a current great light? The kind of person who stopped developing culturally during the ‘70s…
This rather serves to underline Adam’s rut. If he were truly eclectic he would embrace the innovations of, say, dance music. Instead, Adam is affronted that Ava is unable to see his new composition as anything other than something to add to her playlist (“Can I get a download?”) This might be overstating the case – he is clearly open to good music (and the score is nothing if not eclectic, complete with a Dead Man-esque simple but insistent guitar riff) – but he also evidently fears that he has lost his bearings, having dropped out of the ebb and flow of humanity (“I needed a reflection to see if it would echo back”); for Adam the artist needs an audience to assess whether his art has value.
Jarmusch, always fond of lacing his films with intimations of the unknown, be it the ephemeral odyssey of Dead Man or the ghost of Elvis in Mystery Train, has added free licence to do what he likes with vampires as his subject. Yet he mostly sticks to rampant philosophising. White’s talent is explained by his being a seventh son of a seventh son. Eve, who takes as much pleasure in touching books as she does speed-reading them (she can tell the age of objects through psychometry) holds the purest expression of sensual pleasure. She is a visionary (“When cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom” she says of decaying Detroit; Swinton said Eve was a first century AD Bructeri druid) but more importantly she nurses compassion and empathy for those around her. Eve sees positives even in Ava and requests of Adam that they’re “just going to turn them, alright?” in the final moments.
The name-dropping thing can tread a fine line, as it is in danger of becoming a listing process in place of anything original. When it’s playful (Adam’s “Dr Faust” meeting Jeffrey Wright’s “Dr Watson” to buy some blood; Adam comes on like a an extra from a Cronenberg film), it’s fine. Eve can’t get enough of anecdotes relating to the great and not so good, revelling in how Adam played chess with Byron ( “Frankly, he was a pompous ass”). We learn Shakespeare was an “Illiterate zombie philistine”. When we get to the point where Adam is delivering a guided tour of Detroit, waxing lyrical about the “most beautiful cars in the world” at a disused plant and a theatre that is now a car park, one can feel spittle of didacticism and the danger of a lecture brewing. So it’s just as well Ava shows up.
It’s significant that, although Adam’s nostalgic discourses are mostly fuelled by scintillating ideas or passions we can get behind, they comes part and parcel with a suicidal malaise. He blames humans (“It’s the zombies and the way they treat the world”; one can readily imagine him being inspired with the slang after seeing Romero’s first …of the Dead movie) while Eve mainly blames “Shelley and Byron and some of those French arseholes he used to hang around with”. Eve has age and experience on her side, and just generally a sunnier outlook. Adam has missed out on inquisitions and floods and plagues, “real fun”, which points out that his is the classic cantankerous despair of every aging generation (as Jarmusch now finds himself, no doubt wondering and despairing).
Adam has become stuck so it becomes necessary for “youth” that releases him. We don’t know how long he has been like this, but it sounds like a good couple of centuries (“Give my regards to that suicidal romantic scoundrel” says Marlowe who clearly knows his disposition well). As Eve replies to Adam when he comments on humans’ “fear of their own fucking imaginations”; “How can you have lived for so long, and still not get it?” Instead of maudlin introspection, he could spend his time on the good things, the positive things (as she notes, he is pretty lucky in love).
But Eve is too sympathetic to him to break him from his state. It’s very nice to see Swinton in a wholly sympathetic role, not that it’s not fun to see her do crazy and interesting parts, but her serene acceptance here feels new, and she’s radiant and becoming. It’s the intrusion of Ava that sets the cat among the pigeons. Adam and Eve are her de facto father and mother figures, Marlowe the on-the-wane grandfather, in their uncommon family unit. It’s left ambiguous whether Eve and Ava are actually related (or merely fang sisters), but both display a zest for living in their own different ways; which distinguishes them from the morose Adam. As Eve jokes to Adam on winning at chess, “I’m a survivor, baby”.
Eve doesn’t share her sister’s blithe self-centredness (Ava’s the classic petulant teenage party girl). She greets Ava sincerely with a hug, embracing their family bind and nursing genuine feelings for her that Adam can’t even contemplate (he’s still upset about “the Paris thing” even though it has been 87 years since). If Marlow refers to Adam as suicidal romantic, it’s Eve who extols the true romantic spirit. In the final scene, she requests that they don’t kill the young couple on whom they plan to feed. Not out of morality, but for the beauty of their love continued in vampire form. Ava couldn’t be less like Adam; loud, unrefined and an appreciator of lowbrow culture. His disdain at the ‘70s youtube music show clip she is watching is funny and telling; it renders her appreciation of his music is meaningless. She is also vital and primal, thinking with her bloodlust, while Adam has receded into himself and indulges only when he absolutely has to (or, at least, without passion).
So, when Ava kills Ian, it’s the spur to moving on that Adam needs but cannot admit. Ian has been the perfect servant and companion, looking in awe on this creator who makes great music and pays him handsomely (it’s possible that Ian is passing on Adam’s compositions, but if so he surely only really cares that Ian might have clumsily brought fans to his door, not that his music is getting out there). Adam even says, “You know, for a zombie you’re alright” and his resigned response (“Why couldn’t she just have turned him?”) suggests a path whereby he might have continued with the status quo (but really, Ian and Ava as constant companions would also have sent him running for the hills, or Tangier, in no time).
The performers incarnate their roles to perfection. Hiddleston, immaculately ruffled with a curtain of hair hanging over half his face, is debonair, dry and depressed, but in a wholly engaging manner. It’s difficult to conceive of Michael Fassbender (initially lined up for this) pulling off the sheer louche refinement. He and Swinton demonstrate a seamless rapport, and Jarmusch frequently frames them so as to reflect their entanglement, be it a yin-yang nude tableau or the more literal entanglement of their interwoven bodies. Yorick Le Saux’s tactile cinematography invites the viewer into their darkness. It captivates even when the surroundings are the decaying Detroit, and all the more so with comparatively floodlit Tangier.
Wasikwoska can do no wrong just now; not only is she working with great directors, she’s doing great work for them. Yelchin nails the starstruck wannabe; this is epitomised by the scene in the darkened club, where he fumblingly puts on shades to copy his would-be peer group. If Ava hadn’t drunk Ian, she would still have eaten him alive. Hurt and Swinton have great chemistry, even if Jarmusch is perhaps less surefooted in characterising Marlowe’s “true” achievements (the introduction, where Eve announces his literary status, is a tad clumsy). A mention also for Wright, who makes Dr Watson succinct but memorably witty in a mere couple of scenes (“Looking awfully pale there, Dr Caligari”).
If Adam has descended into Jarmusch’s more natural milieu, the Tangier setting with, its two British ex-pats, evokes another bygone age. This is a ‘50s spy novel where double agents and dirty dealings are replaced by the threat of counterfeit blood. The references to different parts of the world are less intrusive than the name-dropping. Jarmusch keeps the settings and mythology at a distance, so allowing his characters to breathe (Neil Jordan’s also rather good vampire yarn Byzantium also succeeds by placing the characters first, and effectively capitalises on juxtaposing their natures with the modern world). Adam and Eve were once in London but now avoid it all costs (chucking bodies in the Thames might have something to do with it). Ensuring all flight connections are at night is just another mundanity of their existence.
As is his right, Jarmusch picks and discards elements of vampire lore. Garlic is an old wives’ tale, but wooden stakes clearly are not. This lot may succumb to blood poisoning (“What do you expect? He’s from the fucking music industry” is the response to Ava feeling queasy after sucking on Ian) and sustain injury (Marlowe is on crutches, presumably through deteriorating health rather than life-as-a-human trauma), so their fallibility is not in doubt. They can link psychically, and move super-fast when they so wish. They have a thing for gloves when they are out in the zombie world. They’re also a superstitious bunch (it’s bad luck to cross a threshold uninvited – whether this is a cardinal rule with humans is unsaid – as is listening to someone else’s music without permission, although that is Adam just being dry). Such elements create a sense of the everyday reality of their existence, rather than lives charged with perpetual excitement.
Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s best film since Dead Man, which may be his best film. It’s an exquisite, beguiling dream of a film; for all the melancholy and despond of its chief protagonist, it arrives at a place both affirmative and uplifting. We want these cultured “souls” to abide; not only do they appreciate the finer things, they embody each other’s immortal beloved. This continuance may be their ultimate artistic expression, as nations fall and centuries subside.