When you’re hundreds or thousands of years old, what keeps you going? This is the central question that fuels Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, a moody and atmospheric film that’s managed to remind me just how successfully the tropes surrounding vampires and vampire stories can be used in a film…largely by ignoring them.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a vampire in a deep funk. He’s got nothing but contempt for the current state of the world and the zombies (humans) who live in and run it, and is running out of reasons to get up at night. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) feels his pain and rallies to his side to try and reignite his reasons for living.
Though that sounds like the impetus for the plot, it’s actually pretty much the plot in its entirety. This is a Jarmusch film after all, and it’s very much along the poetic lines of filmmaking with his earlier Dead Man. When the credits started rolling, my companion and I both came to the conclusion that we really liked the film, but couldn’t really speak much about what had actually happened.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is a movie that’s all about the atmosphere, and it’s dripping with that. The film is much more concerned with its central characters and how they survive their immortality.
Adam is a musician, and has been for hundreds of years. It’s revealed that he influenced a lot of the music throughout the era, as well as scientists and great thinkers. His approach to his immortality is to try and leave an impression on the world, but he gets defeated by societies’ tendency to move on and forget the past (which means his work isn’t in the spotlight for long enough), and by the fact that he can’t release this work as himself while he’s influencing others.
Eve is instead a great admirer of the work put out by others. We see that her house in Tangiers is covered with books, and she’s read so much and been reading for so long that she breezes through novels in seconds. Her approach to her immortality is to embrace its potential to be absorbing the world and all it has to offer forever. She’s enthusiastic and energetic, and when she goes to Adam, her first attempt to break him out of his funk is to remind him of the work he’s been able to create through his protégés.
Once the film rejoins the characters, it’s clear to understand that they provide balance for each other. Jarmusch deploys a lot of yin-yang symbolism (without making it obnoxious) to convey this: Adam is always dressed in black, Eve always in white, and they both wear a pendant of the other’s colour around their neck. The characters also discuss quantum entaglement (though they use Einstein’s more colloquial “spooky action”) which involves entwined particles, and how they still react identically when separated.
It’s a good metaphor for the characters, who are deeply in love and have been for centuries, and how such a relationship plays out with the benefit/detriment of immortality. The films opening credits are played out over a starry sky, which then spins into a long exposure, before dissolving onto a record spinning in Adam’s home in Detroit. We see Adam listening to it, and the shot spins like the record, then see Eve in her home in Tangiers, spinning the same. The two are connected by a bond that the film represents visually, without ever driving it home through on-the-nose dialogue. Their lives are entwined and have been for literal ages. Though they’re living on different continents at the start of the film, that’s not meant to imply any discord between them, simply a different approach to their love – when you’ve been with someone for hundreds of years, it’s bound to change the way you look at relationships.
But as with all things in balance, there runs the risk of chaos or disharmony. This is brought into the film by Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava is implied to be a much younger vampire than Adam and Eve, and one with whom they have a turbulent history. She’s impulsive and reckless, and to Wasikowska’s credit in performing her, someone you want to be not-around-you as quickly as possible. Ava is also where the film reminds you the most that the characters are vampires.
For the most part, to the film’s success, Adam and Eve needn’t be vampires at all; their immortality informs a great deal about their characters, but the other traits they show – aversion to sunlight, thirst for blood – are played very subtly to the point where their need for blood is treated like a human character’s need to eat; something that’s essential, sure, but not the focus of all of their actions. For instance, when Eve is travelling on a plane, one of her fellow passengers cuts his finger. She’s transfixed by the sight of the blood, and it’s clear that she’s craving it, but there’s nothing more to it than that.
At the same time, when the vampire characters are shown drinking blood (which they source from blood-bank donations – these are not murderous vampires) it’s treated as though they’re getting high, and when they’re shown to have gone a few days without, they’re strung out by their withdrawal. It’s a nifty way to treat vampiric bloodlust, because it works either to imply their violent nature, or to suggest that Adam and Eve are so ancient by this point that they’ve even managed to overcome their addictions but run the risk of being pulled back by it. Ava on the other hand is still lustful for it, constantly asking where Adam keeps his stash and always keeping at the forefront of her attention.
It’s when Adam and Eve are dealing with Ava, and needing to reach a compromise on their different approaches to life, that it brings the vampiric elements to the fore – Ava’s juvenile behaviour runs the risk of exposing them as vampires when they go to a bar with Adam’s (human) assistant Ian (Anton Yelchin) and her reckless approach to life doesn’t fit at all with how Adam and Eve have managed to ingratiate themselves into the ebb and flow of time.
As I mentioned before, this is a film much more concerned with character and atmosphere than it is with its plot, but that’s not a bad thing. This is a film that is poetic and visually rich (I still can’t believe it wasn’t shot on film, so lush is its cinematography), and one with plenty to appreciate despite it’s lack of beat-based storytelling. If it does have one drawback, this style of filmmaking does mean that many scenes feel inert. It’s not to say that they’re boring by any means, but they feel like they aren’t going anywhere and often they don’t.
This would be more of an issue if the performances in the film weren’t superb. Hiddleston and Swinton are fantastic, and really make you believe in the bond between their characters. Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin are also great, though their characters aren’t explored in as much depth. Jeffery Wright appears as a doctor (Dr Watson, to be precise) who Adam buys blood from and his scenes bring some good chuckles with his constant jabs at Adam’s theatrics, and John Hurt also appears as Christopher Marlowe (the Christopher Marlowe, and apparently the author of all of Shakespeare’s plays), Eve’s friend and source for good blood in Tangiers.
These are essentially all of the characters in the film. It’s a small film that keeps Adam and Eve as its main focus, and doesn’t delve out much further than that. I have no problem with this.
I liked this movie a lot. It may be slow at times, and not a whole lot actually happens, but it’s a good film to experience, to be immersed in its atmosphere and the world these characters inhabit. I loved the characters, I loved the performances, I loved how Jarmusch was able to re-establish what’s so good about a good vampire story. I loved that despite its atmosphere and sombreness, it was still able to poke fun at itself with a knowing wink here and there (Eve creates blood popsicles at one point and the film knows this is ridiculous, and I love that they’re more than willing to present Adam as legitimately depressed and suicidal, but also a bit self-involved with his Emo Vampire ways). This is a film that will undoubtedly get better with time, and I imagine repeat viewings will bring more and more out of it.
It’s playing in limited release around the country right now, so if it’s playing near you, get out there and see it!
All images in this review except for the poster are sourced from the film’s IMDb page