'Only Lovers Left Alive': Jim Jarmusch Presents A Bittersweet Eternity
There’s money in the romanticized view of vampires – sexy, soft-spoken and philosophical. Writer, director and oddball Jim Jarmusch contributed his own piece to the ever-growing sub-genre while adding notions of his own with Only Lovers Left Alive. The result is a bit mixed, but makes for a fascinating experiment.
Only Lovers Left Alive creates an atmosphere and complete mythology in two hours. The vampires that we meet are very long lived. They have nurtured levels of society, influencing the arts, music and sciences; John Hurt plays the vampire Marlowe who, in fact, is author Christopher Marlowe. These days, vampires keep themselves largely segregated and are no longer predatory. They rarely drink directly from humans because of the toxins now in our bodies; they worry about the drugs, the poor dieting, the chemicals, and disease. AIDS and hepatitis are repeatedly mentioned and highly feared. Blood poisoning has been killing the vampire population in great numbers. Most these days use hospitals and blood clinics to obtain “the good stuff” — untainted type O-negative blood is apparently quite tasty. They’ll drink the blood out of martini glasses, fine wine flutes, and freeze it as popsicles.
The lovers in question are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), named for Mark Twain’s The Dairies of Adam and Eve, though the Biblical connotation is unavoidable. They have been living apart for some time — Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit — though their separation does not stem from problems in their relationship, just a difference in geographical preference. Both are quite old; it is implied Eve was turned roughly two thousand years ago, while Adam is a few hundred years old. They’re both admittedly hipsters in their sense of style in clothing, reading, technologically and are both disaffected with general ennui. They refer to all humans as zombies, emanate a bourgeois taste, eschew anything popular while also decrying and rejecting most of modern society for all its many flaws, yet offering no solution.
Adam is musically blessed but prefers his great works to remain uncredited and underground; he lives in an isolated and dilapidated home and refuses all visitors. including fans that have tracked him down. He’s going through a mid-un-life crisis and considering suicide via wooden bullet. His existential angst brings Eve to Detroit and they reunite politely and happily. They have an old world courtesy and a bone deep affection. Jarmusch’s picturesque and artistic direction flourish throughout, juxtaposing their lives in dimly lit and messy homes against the crumbling of society in long drives around Detroit. They sleep deeply and in the nude, two pale and protean bodies against a dark satin river. It’s that juxtaposition of light and dark, a chiaroscuro with muted palettes that are as thematic as the authors, musicians, poets and scientists pictured along the capacious wall Adam keeps in his house. This is all how Jarmusch renders the concept of eternity; the world changes around them but they are unmoved. It’s undeniably solitary and lacks the romanticism that immortality is usually given in fiction. Here, it is a boredom that shares a room with indifference.
Adam and Eve’s indifference and boredom are meant to be experienced by the audience. Unfortunately, Jarmusch’s translation is too complete. The film can be plodding in its drifting, plotless lethargy. Their languid existence becomes our own, and that was the point, but if a more substantial conflict was entirely off the table, then a ten or twelve minute cut from the runtime would have been welcome. The energy does not entirely remain low, however. Eve’s ne’er do well sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) adds some movement to the proceedings, though her stay is brief. She’s a walking problem who hasn’t been seen for eighty-seven years. She’s impulsive and self-centered; turned as a teenager, she’s forever stuck in that transitional stage.
Like most films he’s in and all the films he isn’t, Only Lovers Left Alive suffers from a general lack of Jeffrey Wright. His Dr. Watson is seedy, strange, needling and every bit as ethereal as everything else in the story. He has two fleeting scenes, both shared with Adam (whom he knows, of course, as Dr. Faust), that ring of subtle accusation and growing understanding. Had Dr. Watson been developed further, maybe as a possible threat, the film’s energy would have been boosted and could have been given a through-line to the story rather than it being a series of thematically connected vignettes.
This is an art house film by an unapologetic and beloved indie director. It’s restrained, elegiac and almost lyrical, which makes it as unique as it is in equal measures both labored and immersive. I would recommend it, but like anything else, it comes with an asterisk.
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