By Jacob Mertens.
A man and a woman lie naked on a bed of black satin, their pale skin holding the frame like a match struck in a dark room. Eyes closed, bodies delicately entwined, the two form an unconscious union. They hold close to each other and sleep without stirring, still as death. Within this lingering shot, viewers behold the modern vampire, not seen as a ghoul stuffed into a coffin but as a lover and an old soul. In Only Lovers Left Alive, director Jim Jarmusch takes on the over-exposed vampire film and strips the genre down to a few recognizable myths: immortality, supernatural speed, death by stake through the heart and sunlight, and life by drinking the blood of others. Even so, Jarmusch has a clear agenda beyond the satisfaction of generic conventions. Rather than grounding the narrative in suspense and violence, he offers his audience an existential riff on immortality. Under his influence, Only Lovers manifests as a story of a life lived too long—a world-weary fatigue centuries in the making—and a love affair that seeks to restore balance.
The film begins with its two leads living on separate ends of the world, divided by an ocean. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) dwells in Detroit as a disheveled recluse. He records music in a condemned building on the outskirts of poverty row and collects rare, antique guitars and old vinyl records. Eve (Tilda Swinton), on the other hand, lives in Tangier, holed up in a lavish apartment. She speed reads from her considerable library and frequents cafes at night, meeting with fellow vampire Marlowe (John Hurt), who happens to be the immortal shade behind the works of William Shakespeare. In these early scenes, viewers get a broad sense of how a soul might spend a thousand years lingering over an ephemeral world. Meanwhile, the names Adam and Eve evoke a connection that defies the constraints of time, and the actors come to share an onscreen chemistry that lends well to the sentiment. When they first talk over the phone, their familiarity with each other feels second nature. Adam, who in his isolation has worked himself into a fierce depression, feigns boredom when Eve is on the line. However, she intuits that something is amiss and resolves to fly out to America and visit him. She travels using red-eye flights, dodging sunlight and death just to make the trip.
Once together, the audience can see a spark of life in Adam that has not registered up to this point. He does not lurk around his empty house like a savage, brooding fitfully, entranced only by the dissonant thrum of his guitar. With his partner beside him, he rummages through his vinyl collection to play music she’ll recognize and takes her on a tour of the haunted graveyard that is Detroit. For all his years, Adam seems to be a creature of the present moment. In contrast, Eve engages with the world as an observer more than anything, reminiscing about Adam’s past or fixating on the lasting poignancy of great literature. She clearly has the better constitution for immortality, because for her the past lends to reflection and appreciation. She presses Adam to see his history in the same way, but he can only view it as a reminder of simpler times. As humans regress into “zombies,” a word Adam uses with scorn to name them, and as their blood becomes contaminated with pollution and drugs, the charm of an immortal life wears thin for him. Without Eve, Adam would have likely relented to fatigue and ended his life—he had gone so far as to buy a wooden bullet for the deed—but with her, the struggle to endure regains meaning. Love acts as a catalyst here, it abates the lassitude of his old age and allows him to reclaim the eternal youth his body holds to.
The film does not center on Adam alone, but the way he changes through the film is certainly more pronounced. To this point, Hiddelston shows his range as an actor, as he must convey a shift between suicidal languor and untempered adoration within the paradigm of a vampire’s trade stoicism. Swinton performs well herself, playing Eve with a tenderness that soothes her partner and eases his burden, but her character’s constancy makes her less compelling to follow. Then again, the marvel of simply watching Tilda Swinton embody her role with an effortless cool compensates for any narrative imbalance. As for the technical side of Only Lovers, the camera turns the ruins of Detroit into a place made fit for mythology. And the captivating score, largely played by Jim Jarmusch’s band Sqürl, gives the feeling that the world may just evaporate around these two characters and leave them in darkness—an apt impression for the only lovers left alive.
Genre films can be easy for critics to dismiss. By their nature they repeat themselves, they establish clear viewer expectations, and filmmakers often use these tropes to prop up an unremarkable story. Only Lovers Left Alive is recognizably a genre film and it does follow certain rules, but there is nothing staid about it. Instead, Jarmusch uses what the audience knows about a vampire film to subvert expectations, communicating something new and vivid. Where once vampires stood for a mortal threat, figures born from darkness and cloaked as death incarnate, here they stand as brooding sages who patiently wait for the world to stop spinning. Adam and Eve are more poet than monster, treating their bloodlust both as a troubling addiction and a means to experience rapture. They are wise but imperfect, and live their long lives as troubled truth-seekers in a world grown dim and dull. Still, even if one were to last a thousand years, there are worse ways to spend a life.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.