I finally got around to seeing Jim Jarmusch’s most recent film Only Lovers Left Alive. It played here in town last year, but I skipped it, and in hindsight I think there were two reasons. First of all, I’ve been more or less disappointed by Jarmusch’s films in the last few years. And secondly, I generally don’t go for vampire movies. Can you remember me ever reviewing a vampire film on this show? I can’t. In any case, I’m glad I finally took the time to watch it, because it’s a real return to form for Jarmusch, and it’s not a vampire film in any traditional sense—that is to say, the director only uses the vampire myth to explore other things outside the scope of the horror movie genre.
For those unfamiliar with Jim Jarmusch, suffice it to say that he’s one of the pioneers of modern American independent film. And he’s stayed true to his personal vision, without compromise, which, sadly, means that he always has trouble financing his pictures. That’s true of this one, which reportedly was brewing for six or seven years before it could get off the ground.
Anyway, in Only Lovers Left Alive, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play the lovers, who have named themselves Adam and Eve; they’re ostensibly married but living on different continents. Adam lives in a crumbling old house on the outskirts of Detroit, secluded amongst his huge collection of musical instruments, playing and composing eerie, dirge-like rock and roll. Eve lives in Tangier, in Morocco, content with walking through the streets of that enchanting city at night, enjoying the nightlife with its unique musical culture. They’ve lived for centuries, we discover, and at this stage of the game they prefer to do without all the killing and blood-sucking. Instead they buy blood through underground medical channels, from doctors making money on the black market. Then they go home and drink it from wine glasses. The ecstasy they express while drinking blood is reminiscent of drug addicts getting a fix, and there’s something of the weary sadness of addict life portrayed here.
Adam becomes very depressed, and so Eve flies out to Detroit to be with him. The implied decadence of the vampire world is a reflection of a general decline in human history, symbolized here by the ruins of the Detroit landscape. Normal people, whom they call zombies, are getting worse and worse—for example, their poisoning of the environment has increased the risk of poisoning the blood supply, an obvious threat to vampires, who need the pure stuff.
In this film, a slyly satiric, even silly, attitude towards the human drama is combined with a genuine feeling of loss. Other characters show up, including John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe: yes, the Elizabethan playwright turned vampire—in this scenario he penned all of Shakespeare’s works after becoming one of the immortals. But the real point, finally, is not in the characters or the story per se, but in the look and feel and mood of the movie. Swinton and Hiddleston are marvelous, draped in amazing costumes and wigs, surrounded by a luscious production design that perfectly displays the idea of creatures of the night. They talk about art and memory and the fate of the world, and I found it all just captivating. Hidden behind this seemingly trivial genre theme is an elegy for culture and for love.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a haunting visual melody. It’s available on DVD.