WARNING: This film involves strong suaveness of character, references to mature music preferences and excessive literary prowess. Cool friends or partner guidance is recommended.
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Jim Jarmusch is cool. This claim is readily supported by the fact he has a soufflé of white hair perched on his head, wears band tees and denim jackets and casually lunches with Patti Smith. However when discussing his films it seems reductive to limit his film output to this 4-lettered, intangible descriptive that equates it a meteorological forecast or your best friend’s signed David Bowie vinyl. Contrary to these generally accepted examples of cool, Jarmusch’s films are intelligently written and constructed with great detail, visually and structurally and never with the sense that, when successful, the final cut was laboriously compiled but more that it was gestated and birthed (to borrow Jarmusch’s own analogy of wild sex and pregnancy to the process of filmmaking). In completed form his films feel more like full-length concept albums that bring together a conversational array of ideas, without the sense that the finished product is a cinematic sermon with Jarmusch outfitted in a velvet robe, denim jacket and sunglasses as the moralizing pastor.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about what to say and do when everything has already been discovered about one another, a point in relationships rarely represented in films, let alone with the respect and romanticism Jarmusch treats it with here. It also happens to be a film about vampires. Jarmusch himself has commented on that not being the focus of the film, but the starting point to explore a tender and preserved friendship worked on over years but taken to its furthest point. In that sense I can’t help but feel the film is a shrine built to house Tilda Swinton. The character of Eve was written specifically with her in mind and she was instrumental in seeing the film come to be through the 7 years it took to finance the project. Eve, played by Swinton, packs her suitcase only with treasured novels ranging from Don Quixote to those in Arabic and leaves her nest in Tangiers under the name Fibonnacci, to go to her languid lover Adam, played with great comic sincerity by Tom Hiddleston. Eve is a sort of godsend siren, leading her lover away from the rocks and the sense is that they’re each other’s fuel to live as much as the blood is. The great parallel between their first meeting on screen – Eve’s head flung back in ecstasy as the lover’s inhale each other once more mirrors the reverse-POV revelry of shots of blood from port glasses. The film, set both in Detroit and Tangiers, explores the space you create in love as much as it is about the intimacy, one feeding on the other *forgive the vampire reference.
The word that comes to mind repeatedly from this film is that of revelry – either in being consumed in drug-like euphoria, in finding a beautiful derelict theatre or the awe of rediscovering your lover of hundreds of years. The costume design of the film is religiously beautiful, particularly the incredible gold embroided robe Swinton wears draped over her books in the disorienting birdseye spin as a record plays. This opening sequence feels like Jarmusch’s answer to 15th Century Renaissance portraits of spouses – Eve draped in her robe over her books as Adam is lounged shirtless on his sofa, lute in hand.
So much of the characterisation of Eve, the tone of the lover’s relationship and their interests in music, science and literature are reflective of those of Jarmusch and Swinton themselves. Jarmusch regulars John Hurt and Jeffrey Wright are also in the film after all, “groping around in the dark with friends, which is always better than groping around in the dark alone”. The film does feel particularly personal, with Jarmusch investing and borrowing a great deal from his own life to furnish the lover’s world on screen. Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL worked with Josef Van Wissem to create an incredible noise-rock Renaissance soundtrack for the lovers, and the two locations featured in the film were chosen on the basis of having great personal appeal to Jarmusch. The ‘ruin porn’ shots of surburbo-industrial Detroit were undeniably beautiful and a well-suited backdrop to Adam in contrast to the low buzzing and winding alleyways of Tangiers that Eve prowls purposefully through. This is the first time Jarmusch has shot digitally, but in my opinion the film loses nothing from this, particularly due to the sparse warmth of the interior lighting created by Yorick Le Saul and from the incredible presence of location, navigated intimately like a local but because of the emptiness with the sense of living in a diorama more than a living space.
Only Lovers Left Alive wouldn’t be a Jarmusch film if it didn’t tackle at least one existential question, the crisis of film being what it is we live for. Suspiciously I felt the film answered this definitively in the relationship between Eve and Adam who endure together through the abandonment they suffer in the film and have suffered across the years. The dynamic of the film is an us vs them idealism, of the two lovers against the whole world and has a much more romanticist than traditionally Jarmuschian absurdist tone as its result. This struggle to pass life by in tandem with the world is the source of its existentialism but also the crux of the comedy. Mia Wasikowska’s Ava plays the petulant child with great amusement, and Anton Yelchin has a great turn as the out of place boy from the lower grade who just wants to be liked. Jeffrey Wright has a brief appearance as the couple’s Doctor and supplier played with such ease from the reticence and occasional stiffness of the vampire nest.
Jarmusch’s contribution to the evolving mythology of vampirism comes in the form of gloves worn and removed by a host, but one could also make the argument that he also develops the mythology so that vampires are required to be devilishly attractive and well-cultured snobs looking down on the zombies around them who actively contribute to the dereliction of a culture they have lived through and loved over the years. It’s hard to know if Adam’s speaking here or Jarmusch, but I suppose that if you’d lived hundred of years, or in Jarmusch’s case, worked in the film industry as an independent for 30 years, wouldn’t you also be a snob? Jarmusch wears his snobbishness with pride in this film, which on a first viewing is like a dark and laconic answer to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. References are made ranging from hang outs with Byron who is an arrogant prick, to fly agaric, to electrical engineering, to 30’s swing. The sheer scope of Jarmusch’s pool of references is intimidating, but its easy to see how some critics lay the claim that it becomes ‘studenty’. I think its all in good fun and if the film is read as a creatively liberal portrait of Jarmusch then its inherent that the references are made without any particular intent or meaning and equally is wholly indifferent to claims of being either snobbish or studenty. In this sense his films occasionally fail to gel and feel too sprawled and too disjointed to allow audiences to fall into the story, like with 2011’s The Limits of Control, but when they work, as it has in Only Lovers Left Alive, there’s a sense of Gestalt – the film becoming more than the sum of these very loosely interwoven ideas and details.
More broadly however I feel the film also asks the question of what is the role of art and the artist – it persists through the years and every era fears that they see the end of culture yet it continues. John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe feels like an extension of this question, in who do we hurt – to be perfectly blunt, who do we suck blood from – to create our art and is its marching persistence through history unnatural? Jarmusch provides no answers, its even tenuous to think hes consciously asking these questions, but there is a suggestion of the freeing necessity of a relationship and of connection as respite from forward momentum. If that’s too idealistic for you, fear not, there’s plenty of depressive droll in this film to get you through.
Sketch by Jess Alcamo, Mondrian-esque background generated here.
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