Jarmusch has a thing for renegades, and what character plays outside the law more than a Vampire?
Refining his slightly morbid, slyly humorous vision, in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch lures us into a singular universe of perpetual night, of timelessness, of history folding in upon itself, of love most tender.
Be forewarned, this is an art film, this is a visual poem, played out in the haunted nightscapes of an abandoned Detroit and a ghostly Tangier. Our stars are the original lovers (and original outlaws,) Adam and Eve, played by a drinkable Tom Higgleston and a transcendent Tilda Swinton. Adam, a tortured musical genius, a brooding Heathcliff wailing on a ’66 Hagstrom guitar, is holed up in a decrepit mansion in Detroit, along with an arsenal of archival instruments and aging electronics. Eve, the intellectual, lives in a backwater flat in Tangier, surrounded by leather-bound classics in every language known to man.
One might wonder, as the story unfolds, who in fact turned these two. Although the first western incarnation of the Vampire was in a novel in 1819, certainly many early cultures have their own mythical bloodsuckers. But Adam and Eve? Given their biblical origins, it’s a fairly radical notion.
Though the lovers are both arch-bohemians, there is a yin-yang aesthetic between them. Eve is light, Adam is dark. When Adam makes a sortie into the inky gloom of Detroit, he prowls forth, clad in black, in a vintage white Jaguar. When Eve ventures out through the nearly vacant warrens of Tangier, she strides alone, a bleached being wrapped in pale suede pants and a minimal ivory moto jacket. Her hair is a tangled mop of dusty white dreads, his a lanky sprawl of black. She wears white gloves, he black. Eve calls in (on a white iPhone) Adam somehow channels her into a sixties TV set. Eve is mellow, cheerful even; Adam is neurasthenic and depressive. They both wear awesome shades.
Again, be prepared - the pacing is languid. And yet the word belies the subtle power locked within it. Underscored by a shifting soundtrack that will rise up in a harsh atonal wash then subside into an aftermath of drifting lyricism, or veer from fragments of classical to Motown, the film derives much of its persona from the music. (Jozef Van Wissem won the Cannes Soundtrack award in 2013.) The film also functions in part as a nocturnal, post-modern travelogue. As we cruise its viscously gleaming, abandoned industrial sprawl, Detroit exudes a perverse allure.
While the two seem to profit from the long-distance element of their affair, when Eve calls Adam in the first act, she finds him in a distressed state (unbeknownst to her he has just had a wooden bullet fabricated...) and decides to make the long journey to Detroit to console her lover. Upon Eve’s arrival, Adam complains that America is populated mostly by Zombies - a blunt metaphor - and their blood is mostly tainted.
Blood here is a metaphor as well for water, a topic of concern as our two anti-heroes, at one point contemplating their own extinction, spout facts about what percentage of the body is water and what percentage of the Earth. Both fluids are equally vital. And Jarmusch interweaves, relatively subtly, an imminent planetary demise throughout.
One such scene occurs when a power outage in Adam’s mansion sends he and Eve out into his wreck of a garden to ramp up his Tesla-esque, home-made generator. Where one might expect them to be besieged by Zombies, the only thing that looms up is a clutch of Amanita mushrooms gleaming in the dark. Eve murmurs to them that they are truly out of season, and we know what is to blame.
Every vampire or zombie flick creates its own rule book and, in this film, Vampires can in fact die from something other than garlic or silver bullets, and that is tainted blood. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that this is what takes down fellow Tangierian vamp Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt. Upon his death bed we are privy to the secret that it was indeed he who penned Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Historical speculation is apparently true because, contrary to the conclusions of the Queen’s coroner, Marlowe never did die, simply chose an underground, nearly eternal life instead.
At any rate, Jarmusch turns the life of the vampire into an exotic, seductive, slow-mo romp through time. Our lovers riff on the various literati that have known, or possibly sucked, and we learn that Adam, like Marlowe, has been in the closet - having donated an Adagio to Schubert.
Fangs are diminutive and seem fairly decorative here as there is almost no prurient sucking. Blood (a highly refined O Negative secreted out of a hospital lab by Adam in the guise of a surgeon) is drunk from tiny stemmed glasses, as if a liqueur. Over a lazy game of chess, the lovers suck on blood popsicles. Life is good. As Eve pulls Adam into an intoxicating dance to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” the depth of their love is palpable.
The only threat to this odd idyll is when Eve’s younger sister flits into town. Played by a bumptious and adorable Mia Wasikowska, Ava is a strawberry blonde sporting the same matted bedhead look as her sister. Based upon some undiscussed past history, Adam knows she is hell bent for trouble. And he’s right. During a night of clubbing, little Ava becomes enamored of Ian (Adam’s cute zombie helpmeet (Anton Yelchin) who brings him guitars and odd electronics) ~ a bit too enamored. When the next night ‘dawns,’ Adam and Eve find dear Ian drained beside a sleepy sated Ava. “You drank Ian!” bemoans Adam. They kick her out. We worry for her welfare as she heads into an eerie Detroit midnight, trundling a tiny pink suitcase behind her, but then remember that no evil can befall the already dead.
In fact, Adam and Eve have a somewhat model relationship. In proximity to each other they fall into an entrancing and well rehearsed pas-de-deux, yet each can survive admirably alone. Actually, upon reflection, Eve seems a bit better at this than old Adam.
It is she who fearlessly strides the dark streets of Tangier whereas Adam palpitates at the thought of another foray to the hospital. When Adam grows unnerved by the errant fans who appear under his window, it is Eve who senses his distress and hops on a nocturnal flight to the rotting Detroit. It is Eve who takes matters in hand and deters Adam from rash self-destructive acts, and it is Eve who books the flights back to Tangier (under the names Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan) whisking them the hell out of Dodge when matters come to a head. And it is Eve who musters the balls, in the final scene...
There’s no real point in elaborating the plot, since there is scant evidence of one. But the tension does ramp up in the end when the lovers return to Tangier, and discover that Eve’s French pharma connection has dried up. The two, now quite out of the habits of yore, are facing a bloodless future. Better see the film to answer the question of how two modernist vampires survive... Or rather more to the point, wonder how their love will survive, in a world of philistines and zombies.
Ellary Eddy is the Founder & Editor of Realize Magazine.