Jim Jarmusch is one of the most lauded yet unassuming directors working in American independent cinema. His work exhibits a typically European sensibility, with its exploration of nomadic lifestyles, the individuals’ quest for inner peace, and the arbitrariness of personal journeys. Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t his first foray into genre cinema, but it is his first take on the vampire film. Akin to titles such as Cronos (1993), Byzantium (2013), Nadja (1994), The Addiction (1995) and The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998), it is a thoroughly untypical vampire film. Compelling performances, rich characterisation, an intriguing premise and delicately handled direction enhance this full-blooded yarn of centuries-old vampire lovers Adam and Eve, who reunite when Adam considers taking his own life.
During the opening moments you might be forgiven for thinking that this is an Anne Rice inspired tale of washed-up rock ’n’ roll vamps, as Jarmusch’s camera spins enthralling above Adam and Eve as they lounge about in bohemian apartments, palely resplendent in their melancholic heroin chic and listening to sullen rock. It isn’t. Unfurling as languidly as a droplet of blood in water, Only Lovers explores how relationships can remain steadfast and true despite the constant flux of changing times, and how individuals quietly, unassumingly cope with change. Beautifully photographed and unobtrusively directed, the story follows Adam and Eve as they attempt to find fulfilling ways to inspire and stimulate themselves, and each other, after having already seen and experienced everything life has to offer. Moving unnoticed through society, as much a part of it as they are detached from it, they’re reflective, thoughtful and above all else, demonstrate and value integrity. A pair of old souls, they have too much of an appreciation for life to rob anyone of it; they collect and pay for their blood illicitly from blood banks, and we’re soon privy to the reverence and ritualism with which they appreciatively consume it. They don’t abuse their power; they act responsibly and drink only for nutrition and basic sustenance. When Adam suggests drinking the blood of a young cavorting couple, Eve chastises him for being “so fucking 15th century”. Tom Hiddleston is suitably brooding as the despairing, disengaged Adam, while Tilda Swinton exudes a glacial countenance that belies Eve’s warmth. The chemistry between the pair is quietly intense and Einstein’s theories on entanglement and action at a distance are discussed to further highlight how entwined they are.
Dynamics are perturbed when Eve’s sister appears on the scene. Like a wayward teenage daughter, she’s more interested in visceral experiences than intellectual, spiritual ones. Her actions bring out a pettiness in Adam, momentarily rendering him a strung-out user rationing his stash. The three resemble a dysfunctional and destitute middle-class family reclining amidst the debris of their beatnik garret, discussing science, art, philosophy and human nature. Mesmeric visuals and a hypnotic score induce a dreamlike narrative, as do Adam and Eve’s night-drives through Detroit, here depicted as a wilderness, a once thriving and artistic realm on the decline. Jarmusch also ponders the dichotomy of ever advancing technology and how it not only renders the world a smaller place, but its isolating effects, too. He also touches on the age-old ‘vampirism as metaphor for addiction’ troupe, albeit in a wry and unconventional manner. He’s as aware as we are that this has been done before. Only Lovers Left Alive has much more to say for itself than that.
Only Lovers Left Alive opens today