Only Lovers Left Alive: Jarmusch’s True Romance

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Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive envisions present-day Earth as an apocalypse, casting human beings as the “zombies” who have overrun the planet, and two star-crossed vampiric immortals as the “humans,” or rather our heroes, observers stranded at the end of the world. Except that their heroism consists entirely of lounging amidst the rich cultural sediment of centuries of human civilization while discussing life, the universe and everything. Pointedly named Adam (Tom Hiddleston, showing his great potential beyond being the MCU’s Loki) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, effortlessly otherworldly), Jarmusch’s vampires represent humanity at its own artistic remove; snobbish, endearing, beautiful, insatiable, simultaneously living and dying, endlessly judging itself while languishing in its own detritus of genius and self-absorption. It’s a conceit irresistibly executed by Jarmusch, resulting in an instant classic.

The fact that this is Jarmusch’s ‘vampire movie’ may call to mind his previous genre reworkings like bleakly beautiful Western Dead Man (1995) and samurai/crime film remix Ghost Dog (1999), but Only Lovers Left Alive hews closer to his more plot-less mid-period masterpieces Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991). It shares with the latter two films a conversational, meditative quality–a distinctly nocturnal poetry of observance. If Mystery Train’s Japanese tourists lost in Memphis evoke, in Jarmusch’s words, pilgrims visiting the remnants left by “the decline of the American empire,” the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive are living in the decline of an entire age of human empires (that is to say, the twenty-first century). This time Detroit and Tangier, separate homes to Adam and Eve respectively, become the backdrop for humanity’s cyclical end-times.

To Adam, the apparent decline of human civilization is deeply depressing, to the point that he begins considering suicide, even ordering a wooden bullet through his “zombie” (as vampires refer to humans) familiar Ian (Anton Yelchin), a sweet, shy admirer of Adam’s reclusive rock and roll lifestyle and talents as an underground musician (Adam’s hypnotic dirges, actually the work of Jarmusch’s musical project SQÜRL and Dutch composer Jozef van Wissem, provide an effective score). To Eve, the same ‘decline’ is as inevitable as the renewal that will follow, much as it did in the darkest ages she’s seen, being the older, more pragmatic vampire. Looking at the shuttered ruins of Detroit’s industry, Eve says with certainty: “when the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.”

Adam is the requisite tortured artist, holed up in a house fit for a vampire, in the middle of an abandoned neighbourhood haunted by coyotes. Eve, on the other hand, is content with being a happy connoisseur, devouring books in her Borgesian apartment in Tangier and hobnobbing with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who really did write the works of Shakespeare. But Adam’s depression brings the lovers together in a reunion that gives us scenes of poignant intimacy, as the two listen to Adam’s vast library of music, dance, explore Detroit at night, talk about history and art, enjoy blood popsicles and play chess. Here Only Lovers Left Alive becomes a glimpse into a relationship so solidified by time that it seems ready to survive even the end of the world. As the archetypal yet gracefully characterized pair, Swinton and Hiddleston are mesmerizing in their interplay, delivering the Jarmusch-penned screenplay’s sly shots of deadpan humour expertly, ensuring that the film’s mournfulness never feels dour. The pair’s interactions with supporting characters like Ian and the slightly shady doctor (Jeffrey Wright, hilariously twitchy) from whom Adam buys blood provide further comic payoffs.

But it is Adam and Eve’s fragility that gives the film its heart; these vampires are essentially human, if very long-lived and therefore unusually smart and knowledgeable. In one overhead shot, Adam and Eve are curled into each other naked and asleep, framed as delicate and soft as the pale petals of a hothouse flower. They don’t seem like undead monsters, but immensely vulnerable creatures. They’re as helpless to stop the blood-dimmed tide as us, the “zombies” that surround them, because they’re our creations, both literally and metaphorically. They need human blood and culture to survive, and they were once human themselves. They’re addicts in need of humanity—a fact underlined by the psychedelic swoon that accompanies their feeding. So they cling to each other and watch, Adam and Eve, yin and yang, light and dark, pessimism and optimism united at the end of the world as it repeats over and over like a record. Their only constant is the art left behind by the passing ages, and their own love, so they hoard them both like the treasures they are. If the dense allusions and references to art and culture might bring accusations of elitism, Adam and Eve, at least, have an excuse, predating the hipster-ism they’d be accused of by centuries.

Adam’s funereal existentialism and Eve’s generous optimism are just two facets of the human response to time and change. After all, who among us in the lucky position to reflect on such things hasn’t observed that the world is going to shit? Who hasn’t countered that very argument with the assertion that it’s not that bad in historical context, that it’s all cyclical, that things are better than they used to be? Who doesn’t hope (and believe, deep down) that we’ll recover from our own mistakes, even if it’s a millennia in the future, after we’re dead, after the fall of everything we currently know as human civilization? Even Adam and Eve, despite everything, begin to mirror the downward decline of the humans they feed off (biologically and culturally) in a third-act fall from grace that finds them seeking blood desperately when their usual suppliers get cut off.