Film of the Week: Only Lovers Left Alive
One tries, when discussing Jim Jarmusch and his films, not to harp on the word “cool,” which has no doubt been more of an albatross for him than for most of his contemporaries. But sometimes the word is hard to avoid. His characters are often cool in the sense of utterly unapproachable—occupying a transcendental realm of their own, beyond good and evil, certainly beyond the mundane and earthly. Take Isaach de Bankolé’s immaculately suited, implacably distant nomadic operator in The Limits of Control (09) or Forest Whitaker’s character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (99), whose singularity and composure came from the knowledge that, in keeping with Japanese warrior codes, he was “already dead.”
Only Lovers Left Alive presents two more characters who are both undeniably cool—in the sense of cold-blooded—and something like already dead, insofar as they’re immortal, undead. The lovers of Jarmusch’s new film, his latest idiosyncratic take on genre tropes, are vampires in love—Adam and Eve, agelessly old, already on at least their third marriage to each other, and pledged to each other forever, or at least as long as the quality red stuff is available to keep them immortal.
When news first came through of the film’s theme, it was hard not to react with wariness, even weariness—surely the vampire subgenre, and all possible revisionist twists on it, had been squeezed dry? Surely, after Twilight, there was nothing to add to the idea of fanged amour eternal? And surely Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction had said everything there was to say on the equation of vampirism and the junkie lifestyle? Jarmusch seemed to be coming to the theme a little late in the day.
Well, yes, and that’s partly the point. Only Lovers Left Alive presents itself as being a final spread of these particular cards. The film is marked by a mood of exhaustion, an end-of-era fatigue that comes across as strangely heady in its world-weariness. Jarmusch undertakes this project in the full knowledge that if you’re making a vampire film now, you might as well be making it as if it were to be the very final example of its genre: a genre facing its exhaustion, even luxuriating in it. For this is an authentically Romantic (with a capital R) take on vampirism and on certain of its elements in particular: blood-linked love; immortality and its attendant ennui; the need to withdraw into nocturnal isolation; and the idea that if you had endless time to live, then you might benefit by accruing endless knowledge, however useless on the earthly plane that knowledge might be. Adam and Eve are indeed steeped in lore that the more practical daylit world might regard as useless, but that vampires, hipsters of every stripe, and the odd plain open-minded mortal might prefer to call “art” or “culture.”
In Jarmusch’s story, the lovers are so profoundly bonded that they don’t need to spend all their time together: what’s a year, a decade, a century apart when you’re this telepathically close, and when you have eternity to link you? Adam (Tom Hiddleston) resides in Detroit, Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Tangier where she hangs out with a Methuselah-like Christopher Marlowe (an impish, catfish-bearded John Hurt). Yet the pair are apparently connected telepathically—supping blood, they seem to share swoons at a distance—and to be linked by the cosmic phenomenon of “spooky action at a distance,” as explained by Einstein’s Theory of Entanglement, which hypothesizes the inextricable connection of entwined particles at far ends of the universe. Even so, the duo sometimes need to meet in one place, and even to communicate conventionally—Eve using FaceTime, Adam using more antique 20th-century phone equipment.
Though centuries older, Eve is the livelier of the pair, more in tune with modernity. She maintains an epicure’s avidity for all the world has to offer—she may have read all the books in the world, but she’s happy to read them again, taking in texts of all eras by skimming her fingers over the pages, speed-absorbing them with an appreciative smile (taking a transatlantic flight, she crams her bags with tomes including Don Quixote and Infinite Jest—for the immortal, a little light reading).
Adam wears his experience more heavily. Having lived in recent years as a cult rock musician, he’s gone into reclusion in what seems to be the last house standing in Detroit—a crumbling mansion stocked with sound equipment, a place so dark and cluttered in its bohemian splendor that, as rock-star retreats go, it makes Turner’s Notting Hill pad in Performance look like the winner of a Neatest Nest competition. There Adam creates feedback-heavy drones of electric funeral music (performed by Jarmusch’s own trio SQÜRL), occasionally knocking off more traditional Paganini-style solos on violin.
Between trips to the local hospital to procure vials of blood from a nervous medic (Jeffrey Wright, jumpy and droll), Adam ponders ending it all—to which end, he gets his clueless but devoted music-biz gofer Ian (Anton Yelchin, very funny) to procure him a custom-made bullet in a certain rare hardwood. But you can’t quite imagine Adam clocking out when he has a lover like Eve, who’s simply such a laugh to be around. The casting is so perfectly done: lank-haired Hiddleston embodies Byronic languor, while Swinton—elegantly sauntering in palest robes, as if she’s just stepped off the Catwalk of the Ancients—exudes knowing mischief, wit, and erudition. She’s the ghoul guaranteed to have the liveliest conversation at a banquet of the damned.
The film’s lovers are, it must be said, a little grand, a little pleased with themselves. Eve’s wild-child sister Ava (a petulantly kittenish Mia Wasikowska) turns up on their doorstep, perhaps expressly with the intention of irritating the hell out of them; she complains that Eve and Adam are snobs, and perhaps she’s right. Adam calls humans “zombies”—the technical term, or just contempt?—and despairs of what they’ve made of the planet. The term reminds us that vampires have always been the swanky aristocrats of the horror genre and zombies the lumpen proletariat, so, from an undead perspective, actual humans may be the scum of the earth. Humans don’t come out well here. They’re sometimes seen loitering in the nightscapes of abandoned Detroit, a jungle they now share with wolves – and wolves would never have turned a once-magnificent cinema, previously Henry Ford’s workshop, into just another car park. So yes, you marvel at the lovers’ lofty chic, but you don’t half want to slap them sometimes. By having Ava call them on their snobbery, Jarmusch is no doubt confessing to the same flaw—but it’s somewhat true that his is a worldview that values connoisseurs, which may be tantamount to dismissing most of humanity as cultureless shmucks.
Yet Only Lovers reminds us that art and culture are not accessible only to those who live forever. We may not all be around long enough to learn how to be demon violinists, or to speed-read David Foster Wallace—but the pleasures are all out there and more accessible than ever to anyone who’s interested. There’s a nice gag when Adam accidentally gives away his age by telling Ian that he once saw Eddie Cochran playing a certain guitar. “You actually saw Eddie Cochran play?” gulps Ian. Adam pauses for a split second: “Yeah, on YouTube.” Of course, Cochran live is on YouTube for us too, probably playing that same guitar. The most obscure reference in the film is to 17th-century English composer William Lawes. Never heard of him? I hadn’t either—but his music’s on YouTube too. All the film’s references are out there somewhere if we’re interested—Lawes, Einstein’s theories, the astonishing Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan (who has a wonderfully gratuitous solo showcase in the final act), the Latin names for types of wood. So are the lives and works of all the many luminaries whose likenesses appear in Adam’s den, on a wall of fame of their own: among them Buster Keaton, Joe Strummer, Thelonious Monk, Mark Twain (is the suggestion that they were all undead too, or just hipper zombies than most?).
All it takes is curiosity, says a film seemingly about the ultimate elitists—but that ultimately is very anti-elitist. Peter Bradshaw, reviewing the film for The Guardian in Cannes last year, found the film “studenty” in its spacy philosophizing—but then, rather than the all-knowing savants that they seem, its characters are eternal students. And the film encourages us to be students too, because knowledge and discovery are the real drugs in their lifestyle, the ultimate hits (posing as a medic, Adam wears the name tag “Dr. Faust”—another character hopelessly addicted to learning).
Shot by Yorick le Saux, and designed by Marco Bittner Rosser, Only Lovers Left Alive is richly atmospheric, steeped in a lusciously opiated dream atmosphere that’s as much sonic as visual. Its soundtrack ranks with Jarmusch’s most idiosyncratic, the electrics conjured by his own trio, the eerily courtly lute composed and played by Jozef van Wissem, with the tone set at the start by Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” in a version best described as dense, broiling grungeabilly. The whole film swirls just like that music: 45s spin on turntables, the stars revolve in the heavens, the camera floats over Swinton as she spins like a stoned dervish. It makes for one of the most enjoyable and artful pieces of cinematic dandyism in the Jarmusch catalog, and for all its poised flipness, one of the saddest and most serious.