Only Lovers Left Alive, Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Vampires live forever. I don’t just mean individual vampires, those careful enough to avoid bands of overzealous buffs and Buffys, the light of the noonday sun, contaminated blood, wooden stakes in the heart and the usual combination of crucifixes, holy water and garlic necklaces. I mean that the idea of the vampire is sufficiently generative and persistent to guarantee it a form of immortality. When filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour put on a chador, she thought of an Iranian vampire and the result is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014; in a completely different vein, What We Do in the Shadows, 2014, is a New Zealand-produced faux documentary; while a theatre import from Scotland called Let the Right One In opened in January of this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn with a female vampire in the lead role, said by the New York Times “to smell like a cross between pus and a wet dog.”
As I say, vampires live forever; unending life is the key to their story and the story continually finds ways to be retold. In history, they have become creatures of comfort in themselves and comforting creatures for us. In calling the vampire a creature, I realize I’m unfairly limiting their complicated evolution. Like all living things, they are susceptible to incremental change and to a larger process of Darwinian adaptation. The vampire is no longer the bald-pated, pointy-eared and long fingernailed night stalker from FW Murnau’s classic 1922 Nosferatu, or Werner Herzog’s wonderfully creepy 1979 reprise with Klaus Kinski. From the ghoulish portrayals of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, to the suave seductions of Frank Langella, the vampire has gone through a wide range of transformations. There have been over 200 film versions of Dracula.
Today’s vampires are more civilized and sophisticated than they have been in the past. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Gary Oldman plays him as a top-hatted dandy, a sort of gentleman choler who is closer to Emily Dickinson than to Bram Stoker. In Interview With the Vampire, directed by Neil Jordan in 1994, Lestat is a menacing piece of business with a full-on inclination towards the homoerotic. You can sense the rush that Tom Cruise’s Lestat feels when he lifts Brad Pitt’s Louis, like a rag doll, into the air for their transforming embrace. Cruise’s character wears his evil a touch flamboyantly on his sleeve, whereas most vampires have learned to keep a low profile, in the shadows and as far away as possible from the glare of the nocturnal spotlight.
It is this kind of vampire that Jim Jarmusch focuses on in Only Lovers Left Alive, his gorgeous homage to this unkillable film genre. He has turned to the vampire to tell a story about the inescapable intersections between love and art. His film could as easily have been called Only Artful Lovers Left Alive, since everything his protagonists do is done with an eye towards beauty and fineness. They are like wan Pre-Raphaelites. In his version, the vampire is an artist and art is vampiric. The idea has its own logic; art sucks you dry in the making and, once made, it offers you sustenance. It is an addiction without which life is neither desirable nor sustainable.
Jarmusch’s couple is named Adam and Eve (played pitch perfectly by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton). It’s as if vampires existed in the Garden of Eden even before there was anyone around to bite. Maybe the Bible got it wrong; the snake might have offered Eve a blood orange and not an apple, and in biting down she went for the juice instead of the flesh. In their long life together, Adam and Eve have aged into their refinement; their aestheticism is as natural to them as is their need for blood. Governed less by blood lust than by blood connoisseurship, they step up Tennyson’s characterization; they are less red in tooth and claw than incarnadine in fang and cuticle. In one scene, Eve interrupts the chess game they are playing to bring to the table two ruby red bloodsicles. It is a tasty and distracting strategy.
Swinton’s Eve is a changeling; elfin one moment and emaciated the next. Walking in the labyrinthine streets of Tangier she is “lovely in her bones,” a Theodore Roethke poem come to life. “When she moved, she moved more ways than one,” the poem goes on, appreciating “the shapes a bright container can contain.” Eve is a reader and she seems to have absorbed her way of moving from the world of poetry. The 17th century metaphysician Robert Herrick praised his mistress by seizing upon “the liquefaction of her clothes.” As the poet wrote, so walks the vampire.
Eve’s dear friend in Tangier is Christopher Marlowe and he clearly fits the coat of ruddy colours Jarmusch has designed for his film. Jarmusch advances the theory—what Eve calls “the most outrageously delicious literary scandal in history”—that Marlowe actually wrote all Shakespeare’s plays and poems. In Kit’s assessment, the Bard was an “illiterate zombie philistine.” Marlowe is played by John Hurt and he is a far cry from the 29-year-old mysterious figure reported either to have been stabbed in a barroom brawl fighting over an unpaid debt, or the victim of an assassination plot. All that romance is gone in Hurt’s portrayal; Kit is a dusty shell of a man who has been “scratching away over the centuries,” as he tells Adam. He embodies his own literary creation; he is “a quintessence of dust.”
Adam, on the other hand, is a piece of work, a cross between Lord Byron and a rock star. He did hang out with the Romantic poets and when Eve asks him what Byron was like, his reply is contemptuous. “Frankly, he was a pompous ass but Mary Wollstonecraft,…” and a wry smile crosses his face, “she was delicious.” Adam is a composer suffering from a suicidal combination of rage and ennui. The music he has been writing is progressively more funereal and he has had a special bullet made for his 38-calibre handgun in case he decides to give himself the wooden gift in the twilight. He rails against the ‘zombies’ for the way they treat the world, for contaminating the water and their blood, but mostly he despises them for “their fear of their own fucking imaginations.” As a consequence, they have destroyed, persecuted and failed to acknowledge a pantheon of innovative scientists from Galileo to Nikola Tesla, the brilliant and eccentric Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer.
What saves Adam from complete despair is his undiminished love for Eve—they have married three times—and their devotion to one another is palpable throughout the film. The cinematography is luscious and slow moving; when they dance to Denise Lasalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” you know it’s a trap they want to be in; and when we see them naked and curled towards one another, their white skin against a black background, they resemble figures eternally inscribed on an exquisite krater. On a flight to Detroit, where Adam lives in a house scatter-full of rare instruments and obsolete recording equipment, Eve reads from “Sonnet 116,” the poem that bears love out, “even to the edge of doom.” Their relationship is the fulfillment of a marriage of true minds and it admits no impediments (even when Ava, Eve’s disruptive sister, comes for a visit). When Adam meets Eve on the doorstep of his dilapidated mansion, they act as if they were performers in a Petrarchan pantomime. In Tangier, they become a variation on Jane and Paul Bowles, substituting blood and music for alcohol and hashish.
They are utterly enamoured of music and literature; the names on their passports are Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan, and on his trips to a blood lab to buy the “really good stuff,” Adam wears a nametag with Dr. Faust on it. On a wall in his recording room he has installed a picture gallery of his heroes; it includes Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Johnson, Buster Keaton, Franz Kafka, Marcel Duchamp, Dorothea Tanning, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, Oscar Wilde, Naomi Klein and a colour photo of Neil Young.
Christopher Marlowe is among the pictures. Adam admires him for “making the game pay off by getting the work out there.” It is an achievement he acknowledges about his own work. Eve loves his newest music because it reminds her of the time he gave a string quintet to Schubert, which he presented as his own. “I asked him to do that,” Adam admits, “but I only gave him the adagio, just to get something out there.” He has released his new music for the same reason. “I needed a reflection to see if it would echo back, before…” and in the ellipsis he opens up the chasm of his possible suicide. It leads to his articulated despair about the way his “blessed scientists” have been treated by the zombies, especially the destruction of Tesla, “his beautiful possibilities completely ignored.” At this point, film and filmmaker are a Mobius strip. Jarmusch is in the process of writing an opera about Tesla, the first version of which was presented at the New Music Festival in Winnipeg last year. It’s a case of Jarmusch assuming the role of the vampire artist. The Hippocratic aphorism, Ars longa, vita brevia, tells us that “art is long, life is short.” For a vampire, not only are both things long, they’re forever.
Jarmusch’s film is beautifully cadenced, in both the way it looks and sounds. The film is two stories, really, and they are entangled. It is the story of a pair of vampires and their passion for one another; it is also the story of Jim Jarmusch and the things about which he is passionate. Only Lovers Left Alive is a manifesto in the form of a film. It stands as an affirmation about what matters: literature, music, a sense of humour, friendship, loyalty and, above all else, love.
At the end of the film, Adam and Eve have run out of good blood and, huddled together on a Moroccan rooftop, they are prepared to die. Then they spot a pair of young lovers who have secreted themselves away, and an alternative to dying presents itself. They have the same idea. “It’s so fucking 15th century but they are so deliciously beautiful, aren’t they?” Eve observes. The die is cast and it has a red hue. “We’re just going to turn them, right?” she asks, to which Adam replies, “How romantic of you.” And so it is. Eve stays in character as they approach the couple, saying, “Excusez-moi” in the most perfectly accented French. The young lovers look up to a flash of teeth and the screen goes black. Jarmusch’s entrancing and seductive film embraces the promise of its name. Now another, and younger, pair of vampires are in the mix. When the lights come back on we know that resting somewhere in the dark, only more lovers are left alive. ❚