I have now watched Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, several times. And I can’t stop thinking about it. I consider it the best film that Jarmusch has ever made. Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie, but not in the way you might think. There is no onscreen violence, and no sense of transgression or damnation. It has a certain dark humor, but it is devoid of the dumb facetiousness that has sometimes annoyed me in Jarmusch’s movies in the past. This is largely a reflective, actionless movie.
[Warning: ample SPOILERS in what follows]
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are a vampire couple who have been together for centuries — although they live in separate parts of the world, Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit. At one point we see a wedding photo, dated 1868; though they both seem to have had extensive adventures before then. Adam is supposed to be about 500 years old (according to interviews; this is never specified in the film). He remembers hobnobbing with great scientists and poets (like Byron, whom he nonetheless describes as a “pompous ass”). Eve’s memory goes back further; she is 3000 years old (according to interviews), and refers explicitly to “the Middle Ages, the Tartars, the Inquisitions.” But Adam and Eve are civilized and refined — “this is the bloody 21st century,” not the “fucking 15th” — and so they have given up their ancient habits of predation. This civilized restraint is also a response to the fact that most human blood these days is “contaminated.” (The reason for this contamination is not made clear; environmental pollution and recreational drugs are both referred to, but AIDS is never mentioned). Instead, Adam and Eve secretly get their blood from hospitals: “the really good stuff,” pure O-negative. They drink it sparingly, in small cocktail glasses, like a fine liqueur.
Adam and Eve each have a moment when they see an ordinary human being bleeding (Adam sees someone receiving medical care, and Eve someone who cuts his finger while opening a juice can). In both cases, they stare avidly for a moment, but then restrain themselves and look away. In any case, it’s only when they are about to consume blood that their fangs come out and they adopt feral expressions. After drinking, they slip into a satisfied stupor, a strung-out state of bliss. Human blood is their only sustenance; it nourishes them, but also gives them a heroin-like fix.
Only Lovers Left Alive is resolutely and self-consciously old-school. The opening shot (aside from the title of the film, printed in a Goth-heavy metal-Germanic font, over a logo of time-lapse revolving stars) shows a 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl record playing on a turntable. The song is “Funnel of Love,” sung by Wanda Jackson, and originally released in 1961. The shot of the turning record is cut together with, and sometimes faded in and out over, separate shots of Eve and of Adam, taken from the ceilings of their respective homes; the camera rotates over their bodies with the same movement as the turntable. Adam and Eve are both lying prone, with their eyes closed, having apparently drunk their fill.
“Funnel of Love” is a crucial aesthetic indicator. The song is a highly stylized one, but it is about being sucked into a romantic abyss: “Here I go, falling down, down, down,/ My mind is a blank,/ My head is spinning around and around,/ As I go deep into the funnel of love.” It was originally released as a B-side, but (as Wikipedia tells us) it has since become a favorite of r&b and country music connoisseurs. And Jarmusch’s vampires are nothing if not old-school connoisseurs. Adam and Eve are presented, not quite as aging hipsters, but rather as ageless ones. They have grown self-reflective in their boredom, having experienced all they are capable of already. I found myself identifying with them strongly in their used-up agelessness: I am, after all, someone who doesn’t yet feel decrepit, but who has officially, explicitly joined the realm of the old — I am only a year or so younger than Jarmusch himself. Adam and Eve are long-term, self-reflective aesthetes, who stand in the broken-down world of the film as the last representatives of aesthetic sensibility or “taste.”
Adam is a musician, evidently an old rock and roll legend. (In earlier times, we are told, he gave Schubert the Adagio for the composer’s last composition, the String Quintet). Adam collects vintage guitars and old vinyl, and composes dirge-like electronica, or what he calls “funeral music.” Eve is not a creator, but she loves old things, and can tell with a touch the exact year in which any artifact was made. She also loves, the literary classics, which she is able to read at superhuman speed in at least seven languages. Eve’s best friend in Tangier is the courtly and elderly Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the Elizabethan playwright who we learn is also a vampire. Marlowe apparently faked his own death in a barroom brawl, and went on to write all of the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, as well as his own. Eve and Adam are both prone to quote beautiful Shakespeare lines which they savor with a contented sigh of “Marlowe….”
The movie as a whole seems to share its protagonists’ old-school sensibility. Jarmusch frames his shots carefully, and his editing is largely classical — with none of the rapid cutting and other “post-continuity” traits that I have written about elsewhere. The film has a reserved attitude towards recent digital technology. Eve has an iPhone, but Adam largely sticks with analog methods. He favors both acoustic instruments and older electronics, and records his music on reel-to-reel tape. Even his digital computer seems to be obsolete (it looks to me like it might be a clamshell iBook from 1999), and when he Skypes with Eve, he feeds the signal to an aging television. All of Adam’s electronics are basic DIY: he stays off the grid by getting his own electricity through Tesla-style wireless energy transmission. The obsession with Tesla, like that with somebody else having written Shakespeare’s plays, indicates a kind of “eccentric” aristocratic sensibility, one that stands self-consciously apart from the presumed vulgarity of the mainstream. And Adam and Eve have nothing but scorn for the “zombies” — which is how they refer to non-vampire humanity.
The movie’s plot (such as it is) centers on Adam and Eve’s long-term relationship, and their evident comfort level with one another. They are living apart, but remain in frequent contact. Adam feels despondent about the state of the world, and considers suicide. Eve has a cooler, longer-term view; no matter what happens in the world of the “zombies,” she’s seen it all before. Eve blames Adam’s suicidal tendencies on his having hung around “with Shelley and Byron and some of those French assholes” (which is one of my favorite lines in the movie). In order to calm him down, she comes to Detroit. Their attitude towards one another is deeply affectionate, but courtly and restrained. Adam greets Eve at the door of his house (one of those old, broken-down Detroit mansions) with a “my lady…”, and takes her hand to escort her over the threshold. The only indication of their having sex is an overhead shot of them lying nude on their sides, facing one another, asleep and nearly motionless; the camera pulls back slowly. Everything about them is careful, slow, and restrained.
Adam takes Eve on nighttime drives through the deserted ruins of Detroit. They pass through empty neighborhoods, with lights gleaming in the distance. They visit landmarks like the Packard plant, and the old Michigan Theater in downtown Detroit (now used only as a parking garage). These sequences are lovely and poetic; but people like myself who actually live in Detroit might well feel that they partake bit too much of “ruin porn.” You wouldn’t know from the film that anyone still lives in Detroit, aside from the “rock ‘n roll kids,” who sometimes drive up in front of Adam’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of the musical recluse.
In spite of my misgivings about the movie’s misleading (albeit beautiful) presentation of Detroit, I can’t help finding Jarmusch’s vision deeply attractive. It’s romantic, and not devoid of a certain crucial negativity (there’s a reason that vampires only go out at night). But it pulls back from the extremity of youthful romanticism, as Adam’s morbidity is tempered by Eve’s pragmatism as a survivor. When Adam says that Detroit is empty because “everybody left,” Eve replies that Detroit will rise again and bloom, “when the cities in the south are burning.” For her, even the catastrophe of global warming will not put an end to everything. At the age of 60, at any rate, I am seduced by the film’s combination of yearning and melancholy and romantic refusal of the governing order with a determination to survive, and even flourish, nevertheless.
But of course this idyll cannot last. Everything is upset when Adam and Eve get a visit from Eve’s kid sister Ava (brilliantly played by Mia Wasikowska). Ava embodies all the energy — and indeed cheerful vulgarity– that Adam and Eve have evidently outgrown. She’s a Los Angeles party girl who just wants to have fun, and makes no attempt to curb her unbridled appetite. Much to Adam’s disgust, she carelessly handles his vintage musical instruments, gorges herself on their otherwise carefully-rationed-out O-negative blood, watches kitschy vampire videos on TV, leaves her stuff all over the place, and drags the three of them out to a nightclub to hear live music. Although she is a vampire and not a “zombie,” she stands for all the lowest-common-denominator popular culture that Adam and Eve so disdain. The last straw is when she kills and drinks the blood of Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s go-to person and sole contact in the music world. “He was just so cute,” Ava tells Adam and Eve, that she couldn’t resist consuming him.
Unsurprisingly, Ava feels ill after drinking Ian’s blood. “What did you expect?”, Eve snaps; “he’s from the fucking music industry!” There is something drily hilarious about this exchange. And our empathy with Adam and Eve is such that we are forced to feel that they are right to kick Ava out. It’s upsetting how their lives are thrown out of kilter as a result of Ava’s visit and Ian’s death. Nonetheless, when the departing Ava calls them “condescending snobs,” she has a point. She has exposed the hollowness at the heart of their exquisite lifestyle. Ava is only around for about 15 minutes of screen time in a 2-hour-long movie; and yet the film wouldn’t work without her. It would be unbearably heavy and solemn: in the same way that Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire would be unendurable if not for Peter Falk.
After this, the denouement of the film comes fairly quickly. Adam and Eve dispose of Ian’s body, but still conclude that they need to flee Detroit. They return to Tangier, where they find that Marlowe — Eve’s only source for hospital blood, as well as her closest friend — lies dying, as a result of drinking tainted blood. Even the hospitals cannot be relied upon any more. With no supply, Adam and Eve are weak from blood withdrawal; she can handle it a bit better, but he can barely stand. “We’re finished, aren’t we?”
In this predicament, Adam and Eve have nowhere left to go; the film itself has nowhere left to go. Jarmusch offers us an epiphany, and then a potential resolution. The epiphany is an aesthetic one. On the verge of collapse, Adam wanders toward the open door of a cafe, and witnesses a performance by the great Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan. It’s an amazing performance, and the viewer can only share Adam’s own amazement. The song offers us a fresh beauty, different from any of the music we have heard so far in the film (the r&b that Adam plays on vinyl, Adam’s own funereal electronic beats, the noise-punk performance by White Hills that we hear at the club). My own stunned response to this music has something to do with the fact that I had never heard Yasmine Hamdan before. (Jarmusch, on top of everything else, is an absolutely on-target musical curator; and he really knows how to place music in his films for maximum emotional impact). The song offers melismatic singing (an important tradition in Arabic music) over an electronic drone, supplemented at one point by percussion. (The song, together with its lyrics about a lover’s separation printed both in Arabic and in English translation, can be found here).
Is my reaction (or Adam’s, for that matter) simply one of exoticism? While I cannot exclude the possibility, I also cannot accept that it is just that. The song is sonically haunting; and it expresses a longing that resonates with Adam’s and Eve’s relationship. Yasmine Hamdan sings about how “the absence” of her lover “awakens the craving”; parallel to this, at several points in the course of the film, Adam compares his and Eve’s status to that of entangled particles in quantum mechanics, which remain correlated with one another no matter how far apart. Eve says of Yasmine, “I’m sure she’ll be very famous”; Adam replies, “God, I hope not; she is way too good for that.” Adam replies from the depths of his hipster snobbism; but I almost feel like I can forgive him for that, because it bespeaks the depth of his emotional response to the music.
After this epiphany, there’s a suspended resolution. At the end of their tether, Adam and Eve see a young Moroccan heterosexual couple kissing passionately in an otherwise empty square. The boy and the girl couldn’t be more than twenty; they are both beautiful, and entirely absorbed in one another. Adam and Eve stealthily more towards them; the movie ends with a close-up, from the young couple’s POV, of Adam’s and Eve’s avid faces approaching them, ferally, fangs bared. Quick cut to the credits, in the same Germanic font we saw at the beginning.
What can we make of this? However civilized, cultured, and sophisticated these vampires may be, their bottom line remains ruthless predation. What crystallized for me at the end of the film was just how white — racially speaking — everything was. Tilda Swinton has a ghastly, almost albino pallor; Tom Hiddleston goes for the gloomy Goth look. They both live in what might be thought of “Third World” zones, as if in flight from the sterility of white/Anglo culture. In point of fact, Detroit is more than 80% African American; but the only black person we see in the entire movie is Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), always at work in the lab at the hospital, who sells Adam those bags of O-negative blood. It’s as if Adam is living off black people’s blood, without the inconvenience of actually having to interact with them. (He always has huge wads of cash, with no explanation as to how he gets the money). It’s noteworthy how, musically as well, there is no reference to any post-1970 African American music; Adam and Eve debate the relative merits of Motown and Stax-Volt, but the only more recent American bands mentioned are — significantly enough — the White Stripes (at one point they drive by the house in Detroit where Jack White lived as a child) and the White Hills. When people say that “everybody left” Detroit, what they mean, of course, is that most of the white people did. Adam lives in the ruins of a decrepit white culture, and he seems unable to recognize that anything else might be going on.
As for Tangier, it seems to offer hopes of renewal; this is apt, since Tangier has been an outpost — or a place of escape — for white Western hipsters at least since Burroughs and Bowles went there in the 1950s, and probably well before then. In Tangier — more fully than in Detroit, which offers Adam nothing besides ruins and blood — the “Third World” is a resource that the vampires can consume and appropriate. Eve is reinvigorated through a sort of ever-repeating “primitive accumulation,” or stockpiling, of the local (non-white, ostensibly non-European) culture. Yasmine Hamdan, and the young couple at the end, literally embody this dynamic; they are food and fuel for Adam and Eve to prey upon. In this way, the film becomes an allegory of the dead end of white Euro-American culture, which can only live so long upon its no-longer-active cultural heritage of Elizabethan poetry and vinyl 45s.
Only Lovers Left Alive is therefore a film about whiteness. I do not say this as an external critique of the film, but rather as a statement of something that the film itself self-consciously exemplifies, at least on some level. (Neither Jarmusch nor Swinton has said anything about this aspect of the film in any of the interviews that I have read; but I strongly feel — though I do not know how to prove this — that the film is fully knowing about what it does). “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Hegemonic whiteness is in a real sense dead; but as it is incapable of realizing this, it still rolls on and oppresses everyone else. It is precisely because I love Hiddleston’s and Swinton’s characters so much, and identify so strongly with their predicament (despite the fact that I am — or at least I flatter myself to think that I am — much more open than they are to the new and the popular), that I am also forced by the film to recognize how circumscribed and limited their pleasures are, and how dependent upon an unstated and entirely taken-for-granted power and privilege.