Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s most potentially outlandish choice of material, resulting in perhaps his most transcendent film. The subject is vampires, one of the most over-examined states of being (or unbeing) in film history I suppose, and Jarmusch doesn’t try to deny the genre’s long shadow: the film has blood lust, fangs, references to wooden stakes through the heart, and so on, although these don’t always bear their usual ominous weight. But the film’s genius lies in a remarkable inversion. Vampire films (most films about anything, for that matter) usually exist in a heightened present, the vampire’s supernatural characteristics serving to amplify their threat to the prevailing order. Jarmusch, on the other hand, perceives the condition as facilitating or necessitating a more luxuriously intense engagement with both past and future, the present being merely the bridge between the two (they refer to the rest of us as “zombies,” embodying the flipped perspective on who’s closest to death in the ways that count). His film has a remarkable sense of freedom from momentary distraction and impulse, supported throughout by one outstanding creative decision after another.
Only Lovers Left Alive
For example, half of his central vampire couple, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), lives in what looks like an all-but-abandoned part of Detroit, the eerie symbol of an America struggling to transition between different eras. At times, following his nighttime drives, the film feels almost like a documentary (although Jarmusch conceded in a Sight and Sound interview that the film’s take on the city is “limited and somewhat unrealistic”), taking in former theatres now converted into parking lots, environmental hazards, even Jack White’s childhood home: “Little Jack White!” exclaims his companion Eve (Tilda Swinton) in delight. There are still pockets of culture though, although they’ve become almost surreptitious – one of the film’s many delights is in depicting the black market as driven by vintage musical instruments and vinyl records more than by drugs. In the film’s first extended scene, Adam’s regular “supplier” Ian brings him a new stash…of classic rock guitars.
Adam’s lair is a feat of production design, resembling a particularly chaotic recording studio from a few decades ago; he sees our current moment as one of lost respect for science and tangibility, and it drives him almost to despair. Eve, who’s a little older (by which I may mean several centuries), has a more serene grasp on things, taking a more intense and lasting pleasure in mankind’s cultural achievements, less preoccupied by its failures. As the film starts, she’s in Tangiers, her preferred location, but comes to Detroit (on a night-time flight, naturally) to help him out of his depression. The project is interrupted when her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives from Los Angeles; whereas Adam and Eve take a practical approach to their need for blood, setting up steady supply relationships with willing doctors, and regarding the neck-biting method as hopelessly old-fashioned, she’s happily regressive, making little attempt to control her impulses, and so is intensely dangerous.
The film is striking enough that Karen von Hahn, the Star’s fashion columnist, wrote a whole piece on it, referring to the protagonists as “hipster-variety bloodsuckers” and concluding: “As in-the-know, super-discerning scenesters like Jarmusch would appreciate, not only are vampires essentially way cooler than zombies, it’s ultimately the exclusivity of cool itself that will never die.” It’s indeed true that Jarmusch might be one of the more vampire-like of directors: he’s looked much the same for thirty years or more (the early white hair helped), and seems fully immersed in his own creative world, which feels like it should be largely nocturnal even if it actually isn’t (maybe that’s the influence of his early film Night on Earth). I don’t think he’s ever made a film that wasn’t good to watch, although I can see how they might sometimes seem rather unapproachable, locked inside a set of aesthetic codes that couldn’t possibly mean as much to anyone else as they do to the director. It takes time to perceive how Jarmusch regards the usual trappings of “realism” as just clutter and convention to be stripped away, how his familiar “deadpan” approach to things isn’t a pose but a mode of investigation.
You might argue that there’s almost nothing in his work about what you might call “normal” life as we usually perceive it. But maybe that’s a representation of the same thing I mentioned, of seeking to transcend confinement in an overly hyped present. Only Lovers Left Alive has an intriguing preoccupation with the notion of fame: the fourth vampire in the film is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), here the real writer of everything we attribute to Shakespeare, and Adam has made similar anonymous contributions to the Western canon (helping out Franz Schubert for one). In the present he wrestles with wanting his new work to be somehow heard by others, while resisting any kind of personal attention.
The essence of cool
Of course, it’s only good self-preservation strategy for a non-aging vampire to remain out of the public eye, but it doesn’t seem like only that; it feels like being widely recognized and the accompanying distractions are inherently corrosive to one’s Self. Actually, having a measure of fame, like Jarmusch, while remaining seemingly in control of one’s agenda, might be the real essence of cool, and not something that necessarily comes easily (in that same interview, he described his sense of time as precious and limited, remarking how he avoids shows like Breaking Bad because he’s afraid he’ll get addicted).
On one of their night time drives through Detroit, Eve remarks how the city will rise again, when the American south starts to run out of water. It’s a matter-of-fact observation, and all the more chilling for that; actually, it’s unusually politically pointed for Jarmusch. But the evocation of a land of pointlessly lush lawns built in the middle of deserts, of capitulation to ludicrously unsustainable values, provides a strong implicit contrast to the values that underlie his film.
When she packs to leave Tangiers for Detroit, Eve’s luggage consists entirely of old books in multiple languages; she runs her finger over their pages, apparently absorbing their beauty and meaning as if through a straw. She must have read them before, if not memorized them, but her communion is as much with the books themselves, as privileged objects; even if we don’t understand the details, it’s a wonderfully sensuous moment. On the other hand, unlike Adam, she also sees the virtue of having an iPhone. Jarmusch in no way denies the possibilities of our current cultural and technological moment, but he’s surely puzzled at the undead state of those who choose to see nothing else.