Jim Jarmusch’s latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, is about vampires. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play these creatures of the night, ancient and wan, but Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t about vampires at all. It is about the hungry, depleted soul of the artist.
Who better to bathe us in that painful light than Jim Jarmusch?
While this writer/director has been a bit spotty of late, his films have always remained unquestionably his. He is one of the world’s true remaining auteurs. In films such as Dead Man, Down By Law, and Ghost Dog, Jarmusch reveals his own sublime logic. His worlds are not real nor unreal, but simply as unreal as reality can manage. His latest one finds that fulcrum and, gloriously and lyrically, teeters before us.
In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch reclaims the concept of the vampire from sycophantic tweens. He shows us what a vampire does on its endless days off, after its turn from simple human to creative fiend has calcified.
She luxuriates in words. He cries through tone and rhythm. They yearn and mourn and move on. They watch the world corrupt and flake away. Somehow, they survive. After all, as bad as things are now, they’ve been worse before.
That’s what ageless life reveals — not a lust for blood and violence and sex, but perspective on beauty.
In Only Lovers Left Alive — a luminous film of calfskin creams and suede blacks, of hiding and revealing — Hiddleston plays Adam, reclusive musician and distant spouse to Swinton’s bibliophilic Eve. Adam lives in the skeleton of Detroit, in a crumbling home powered by the ruins of the outdated artistry and technology that we should have cherished. Eve wraiths around Tangier with her mentor and friend Kit Marlowe (yes, the playwright; John Hurt), savoring blood obtained from an understanding physician. When Adam’s world-weariness threatens to overcome him, Eve undertakes a journey to her love. Together, they do as vampires do, slowly.
When your lot is forever and a day, what’s the rush?
The film is exquisite and still. Moments of cinematic beauty drift out of the corrupted night, like lines of heat lightning. Adam and Eve deal adultly with their need for vital sustenance. A few other faces nudge the drama along. The lightning slows, holds, fades. It builds again.
Watching Only Lovers Left Alive is contemplative and, in that Jarmusch way, cheeky. It is far from what you’d expect of monsters. The horror, such that it exists at all, takes the form of resignation. And so it has come to this.
No, these vampires do not lurk behind hedges, threatening to leap forth and latch onto one’s neck. Seriously; how many years of that vulgarity could a vampire endure before he or she tired of it? Jarmusch’s film instead suggests that other, more intense desires supersede a vampire’s base cravings. Love, perhaps, and art, both facets of creation — processes of beautiful, difficult investment and subtle reward — motivate Adam and Eve. If they need blood, too, more’s the pity.
It’s an odd take on the vampire, but one that works. Only Lovers Left Alive alludes that Adam and Eve’s creative struggle is what any artist experiences. You need the energy of the living to get by, but wanting it — wanting their acclaim, their box office dollars — is so depressingly gauche. Better to create in seclusion, purely, and let rumors and tastes of your work leak out into the world. There, the zombies can thump to it in clubs, or watch it on the cracked screens of their phones.
Only Lovers Left Alive is no fool, though. The film knows that an artist needs the world, and to deny that is delusion. He or she needs to interact with its decay, to feel how old it is. Artists need to linger on the lines of lightning that inhabit the masses, as frightening as that may be.
Riffing on this theme, Jarmusch’s film sets us up with the character of Ian (Anton Yelchin). He’s Adam’s acolyte in music, willing to run any sort of errand in exchange for access to his reclusive genius. He is, if you will, Adam’s agent, unable to attain his idol’s stratospheric cool, but hoping some will rub off. He’s ascendant by association. We also find in Only Lovers another aspect of artistry — one that’s more pop star commercial — but I’ll leave the story of Eve’s sister to emerge on its own.
There are few real artists, suggests Jarmusch. And, throughout history, they have mostly been vampires. Seeding the creative throughout the ages with snippets of their sound, with the odd iamb here and there. Maybe even with a movie.
Only Lovers Left Alive opens April 18 at the Embarcadero and the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco and on April 25 at the Shattuck in Berkeley, Camera 3 or 7 in San Jose, and at Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.