Jim Jarmusch and the End of the World
The beloved and idiosyncratic film work of American indie auteur Jim Jarmusch has often involved genre re-imaginings – Dead Man’s bleakly surrealist take on the Western, the unexpectedly apt combination of samurai and Italian-American mobster tropes in Ghost Dog and his frequent return to the road movie. His wading into the bloody mess of the vampire niche nonetheless comes as something of a surprise, particularly so when the travails of Edward and Bella have cemented such an endlessly wan image of undead romance.
But that may be what Jarmusch does best in genre work: taking something bled completely dry by hollow repetition, twisting it in another direction and revealing that it is still full of life. Only Lovers Left Alive stakes its claim on the genre and transforms it to something miraculous: a smartly contrarian vampire flick that bemoans the diminished allure of immortality through its protagonists’ astute takes on the plight of the environment, scientific inquiry and entertainment industry blood lust. Jarmusch’s ongoing fascinations (literature, the work of Nikola Tesla, slapstick, music, subcultures, etc.) fit squarely into the film’s subtle defiance of both the lore of vampire immortality and mainstream doctrines about human progress.
Only Lovers Left Alive is, rather incredibly, a deeply romantic work about the (possible) end of the world, a theme alluded to by the film’s title. Beautiful and hilarious by turns, the film uses the ruin of Detroit to genius effect and is driven by marvellous performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston playing two highly sophisticated vampires. Adam (Hiddleston) is a sombre recluse hiding in a beleaguered Detroit house, producing beautiful dirge rock via mishmashed anachronistic recording technologies and vintage instruments. He is terrified by the prospect of being discovered by his fans or industry types and so brokers virtually all interaction with the outside world through his helper Ian (Anton Yelchin). Among the many things that the pleasantly ignorant Ian doesn’t quite savvy are the fact that his boss is a vampire and a potentially suicidal one at that.
Half a world away in Tangier, Adam’s long-time wife Eve (Swinton) is calmly thriving on her timeless nocturnal existence, basking in literature, music, aesthetic beauty and the pulse of the city. But when a Facetime chat (hilariously rerouted by Adam through an old, giant CRT television screen) reveals the depth of her lover’s despair, Eve flies to his side – on overnight flights, naturally. Reunited, Adam and Eve fall into rapturous reconnection, night-time sightseeing drives and sipping on blood that Adam secures through a cooperative haematologist. (These vampires have long since opted for non-violent means to fill their needs.) But Adam’s malaise is more than superficial and Only Lovers Left Alive’s most deft move is to preserve a sense of menace around the couple that simultaneously apes junkie paranoia (they are hooked on blood, after all) while posing deeper worries about the age in which they find themselves. Adam refers to humans as “zombies,” and even the fans that periodically ring his bell are glimpsed as shadowy threats. The city is literally dying around them and they have to take extreme care to procure blood that is untainted. In one of the film’s subtler – but revealing – moments, Adam is forced to reboot the Tesla-inspired generator he built to power his home. On their trip to the backyard, Eve spies a species of mushroom that is growing in the wrong season. The natural world – which she has observed for centuries – is out of whack. The effect of that vignette lingers over the film while wayward younger sisters, the death of old friends, the loss of sanctuaries and the decrepitude of Hollywood culture drive Adam and Eve toward their primal instincts.
To summarize the film like this risks distorting the great lightness of touch with which Jarmusch contemplates a looming apocalypse. It’s blessed with a typically inspired soundtrack, gorgeous imagery and brilliant dialogue. But in the end, these vampire lovers are emblems of a sort of wise, cultured and spirited humanity that is increasingly rare, and of the animal fate that threatens us when we let go of all that lets us sense the immortal.
Kate Lawrie Van de Ven