Only Lovers Left Alive, the beauty of being
Only a side-effect, but already quite some achievement: With his latest movie, Jim Jarmusch saved the genre of vampire movies from hyped over-produced teen-kitsch…
Only Lovers Left Alive is much more a road-movie than one about vampires or love – a sensible meditation about being. As usual for a Jarmusch movie, the plot is rather pure: There are this couple of vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), they love each other – literally – since forever. Besides that, she loves books, he loves guitars, she lives in Tangier, he is in Detroit, and they both live more-or-less secluded lives devoted to their passions. Only occasional remarks suggest that they once passed more exciting days among the greatest geniuses – in contrast to their rather calm, peaceful rhythm they follow nowadays, only disrupted by rare interaction with others. It is mostly the urgent need for nourishment – in physical or intellectual form – that makes them cross other beings.
In Adam´s case there is Ian, his dealer for seldom instruments and other extraordinary wishes, and a hospital doctor who sells him fresh blood. Eve is in contact with her old friend Christopher Marlowe, for conversation and blood supply. And then there is Eve’s blizzard-line younger sister Ava, messing up their routine.
Also typically for the oeuvre of Jarmusch, is the character of a road-movie. A journey without beginning or ending as an extract of some never-ending story. A beady chain of moments, stations and details compose the narrative – always dealing with this certain feeling of being lost in-between time and space, the difficulties within the connection to other beings, the beauty of misunderstanding, and, in the end: Finding without searching, searching without seeking, reaching the destination by getting lost, having a revelation one can’t particularly name, being better than before without being necessarily more well.
The conflicts that appear aren’t solved, they just disappear again or are replaced. Only Lovers Left Alive parts from a point where most films are ending, as the fundamental things are settled. It isn’t a love story, as their love is so obvious and fundamental that it can’t serve as a dramatic element. All tension is created by a dense atmosphere supported by shooting, music and cutting. And by the viewer himself, by his expectations that aren’t given in – Jarmusch is playing off our visual education and habits.
There are quite a few scenes that reference the clichés one is used to from other movies and classical storytelling. Features that normally appear in classical vampire movies are used to create some subtle sense of excitement. There are intense shots that focus on the bloodlust of the main characters – but – unlikely for the genre of vampire movies, nothing ever happens – staining the spectator by placing him in a confusing setup of the unknown, where logic doesn’t pertain. Besides that, there is this particular humour. Jarmusch is even using some special effects to illustrate the main character’s extraordinary abilities – but that rarely, superficially and out-of-nowhere, that it can be nothing but very funny, as it is always quite unnecessary and surprising. Those silly moments appear every now and then – like when the disposition of a corpse in industrially contaminated water melts off the skin leaving behind the skull, like in a cheap splatter movie, or when Eve presents her Vampire-ice-cream-creation – frozen blood on a stick, which resembles to slapstick comedy. Very subtle, the movie is making fun of all the other movies – and also not taking itself too seriously.
It is this self-irony that gives all dark tension a light opposite and saves the audience from getting frustrated over the never-served expectations. The dialectic character of the movie is shaping it from the very beginning and outlines the symbiotic connection between the two main characters. They live two versions of intense concernment with all things. The first scenes introduce them in their very particular environments, underlined by their own rhythm, spectre and focus outlined by cutting, colours and music. The scenes are switching from Eve to Adam, from Tangier to Detroit, from Arabian music to Jozef van Wissem´s deep, dark psychedelic post-doom, from red to blue, from dancing to hearing, merged by the camera movement, the sound and the setup. The film shows the process of the helical convergence of two extremes, the fusion of two attracting forces. First, they are not even in the same place, the first contact via telephone is followed by the reunion in Detroit and, finally, they travel together and even hover over each other, facing their catastrophe tightly embraced – an ever increasing intensification.
The vibrant camera work follows the inner motions of the protagonists like a spy. In the movie’s Baroque contradiction, the figure of Eve is the complementary pole to Adam: her colours are warm, there is light and lightness and her occupation is the detection of the poetics in everything. Despite her long presence on earth she is still perceiving the beauty of details, sensing wonder, she takes moments of pause filled with pleasure and affection.
Eve’s connections to other beings are based on friendship and trust, she can forgive and look forward. It is up to her to anticipate Detroit´s reinvigoration, “when the cities in the south will be burning”, to hold in to greet a scurrying animal or to propose to unleash a scandal unveiling the real identity of Shakespeare, just for the fun of it.
The contrasting character of Adam is set within a blue, romantic sound of genius and darkness. Seeing things come and go left him with a broader view, aware of the overall connections in between all the single actions. But seeing all these mistakes and crimes leave no hope for change, and the focus on the repetitive character of all human ignorance fills him with disgust. He defines the interactions with others by employment, there is always the distance of a wad of cash between him and the others. He’s backward-looking, inhibited in his existence by an overall desperate nostalgia, he’s living with the ghosts of the people he has survived. There is this huge gallery of portraits, he’s collecting old instruments and in contrast to Eve, who’s using an iPhone, he has transformed an old screen and a telephone to talk to her, as well as he has built his very own energy transmitter – in bitter conscience that “all the beautiful ideas” that Tesla once had were neglected. All over the film, he’s pointing out the missed chances, neglected greatness, destroyed genius. All this disgust with the world evokes more or less serious suicidal tendencies. He plays, half-hearted, a perfect sonata or records genius songs without any feeling of excitement. When Adam suffers this depression, Eve stands by him. She heads to Detroit not to talk him out, but to be with him. It´s all cleared out within some gestures, allusions, a dance.
There is no need for endless discussions about being troubled with the whole world – it is a simple decision to take: To be or not to be. This general question culminates in the figure of Adam and is multi-referenced in the movie – by the general dialectic, the notion and allusion of Hamlet. And even when she’s telling him: “You’ve been there so long. And you still don’t get it?!” it seems like it’s not addressed to the struggling lover, but to the whole of humanity. All this transports a subtle criticism on society in general: There are some key scenes which allow Jarmusch to comment the absurd – and sadness that lies in all human activity. Without defining it more precisely, human blood is somehow contaminated – there is no need for more precision, one understands quite well that it derives somewhere from all the pollution we produce and the dirt we consume – what an elegant expression.
The film is stringing together a variety of wonderful metaphors for the unnatural, the alienated and the violent. Adam is calling all ordinary mortals simply “zombies”. What are these human ambitions and where are they leading? What is the value? And what is the price? All Adam’s contact to the “zombies” is defined by the exchange of banknotes – and the fact that he just doesn’t care about it uncovers the weird fascination and bizarre satisfaction of all the others even better. It is way too easy to make a dealer happy with some small pieces of paper. In contrast to Eve, he’s keeping an enormous distance by the help of all these bank notes. This exclusion is leaving behind other persons in-between, condemned to hide in play or to behave clumsy, insecure and ridiculous – a general inability to communicate.
One doesn’t know if it’s up to Adam or to all the others to find themselves on the outside. There is a key scene that shows how Ian, Adam’s guitar dealer, tries desperately to be equal. It’s amusing to watch him sweetly trying to be cool, like a teenager he´s trying to adapt by imitation: wearing sunglasses and drinking from the same hip flask as the others – and fail.
But also the vampires are having some familiar everyday annoying problems – just as anyone else: identification issues and travel booking stress, unwanted fame as a musician, the access to acceptable nourishment, boredom – the point of view of a vampire is de-contextualizing the everyday and giving the normal a bizarre taste. References are made all across history and culture, featuring the house of little Jack White up to complex theories about the universe and the story about a diamond up in the sky that emits the sound of a giant gong.
The film is a melange of all sorts of stories, only mentioned shortly – to be continued in everyone’s own imagination. Within all these sub-plots, Jarmusch can place himself very well within the scene as an artist – as it is partly his own music and the music of his friends that is seen as the most genius and outstanding within the logic of the story. The musician Jozef van Wissum, whose compositions give the film its identity and intensity, inspired the acting of Tom Hiddleston. At Adam´s wall of portraits one can find Einstein next to Iggy Pop and Kafka, and maybe Jarmusch even placed his very own portrait somewhere. And one doesn’t know, maybe Jarmusch received the film from some ghostwriter with greater abilities – like Adam gave some of his compositions to Schubert.
All this holds a banality that benefits the access to the tough subjects and preserves the film from being sublime. Once again, humour is saving the main characters as well as the audience from momentousness, melodrama and desperation. The movie is nothing like judgmental at any moment. Still they face all fellows with sympathy, respect and sensitivity and – most of all: love.
All this bizarre, weird, vulnerable, strange activity that one calls life is actually quite funny – the unintentional humour of being. The movie seems to say: Yes, there are horrible things happening, and one can get really really anxious about it, but actually it’s also quite beautiful and very very funny. It all just depends on the perspective. There is art and dance and music and beauty and love – only lovers are (left) alive.
Jarmusch has found a fantastic way to observe and analyse the contemporary: Simply by filtering it with a perspective of beings beyond human capacities, beings that have an immense knowledge, wisdom and excellent abilities simply due their long existence in this world. They have seen a lot, they know about secrets because they have lived them. Nevertheless, it is a film about vampires without being a vampire movie. That the main characters are vampires is just a tactical move to enable the audience understanding all that without complex explanations or any introduction.
The internal logic gives space to develop intense moments and an ever-increasing intense atmosphere. An atmosphere that sucks you in, leaving this very feeling one can’t quite describe – mesmerising wonder, drunkenness, exhilaration, rapture. A film composed of a strong visual language, a subtle sense for colours, a dark, bitter humour, a doom feeling and the sound, the sound, the sound. A sound one can almost smell – ecstatic, the dervish’s dance. All the movie is arranged around sound and movement. Static pictures like in the first Jarmusch movies are used mostly if the world is moving around the camera – like in shots of driving. In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch is using a fluent, dancing camera: following the maelstrom of sound and colour and turning around like a record player, what makes one wonder if Jarmusch attached his camera to it. But it is also to the focus on the music where the movie slightly leaks. Scenes featuring live performances – once of in Detroit, once in Tangier – are trying to be realistic, but they´re just obviously fake and hold way to many unwanted clichés. There is something distracting which destroys the distance and abstraction that makes the movie so tense and tangent. There is this certain fascination for haptics, feeling and touching become a new dimension: Eve can feel the age of a material by touching it and objects like books, garments and instruments play major roles and mime the supporting cast, as they are precisely dated, named and the central point for some scenes. Again, this is quite typical for a director who structured a whole films around coffee and cigarettes, bouquets of flowers or mysterious matchboxes.
The same can be said about Poetics and Music, which frame the film, coming from the two sides of the main character. And the more the film is heading towards the catastrophe, the less attention is given to poetics, objets and rituals. Eve is taking only a small selection of her beloved books when there is the urgent need to travel to see Adam, who on his side has to leave all his family of guitars and other instruments behind. First, drinking blood is a highly ritualised process featuring special goblets, but with emerging unscheduled events, it gets reduced to the animalistic instinct of survival, delight and modesty culminate in desire and lust, then pure hunger. Like this, they are taking step by step out of civilisation, half persecuted, half fleeing, two lost animals in-between civilisation’s jungle: “So this is your wilderness, Detroit”. The romantic scenery of once-vibrant cities comprehends all human activities as part of a natural circuit, right aware that this is the way the world goes, times come and go.
Hope is around every corner, even in the darkest moment. Adam finally finds it in a young Lebanese singing in a bar. The change of place and perspective have cured his depression, he re-found the beauty of details, wonder, curiosity. He couldn’t buy himself an instrument awakening him as the one Eve could get him – facing the catastrophe, she is making use of Adam’s money. It is due to her presence, her present to him that changes not only his relation to the object, but even the value of money. All is dependent on use, context, gesture. It is the need for blood – the essence of life itself – that shapes their intensity of desire and dependence. They need blood, they are addicted to life itself.
The film ends with the two of them stumbling through Tangier (like all Jarmusch movies.. stumbling in the end) struggling with their moral, facing cold turkey – and finally fail due to the basic need of survival in a system that doesn’t allow them to live their humanist ideals. In face of the conditions that determine our behaviour, all beings are finally the same – being vampires or not. Basic needs will tear us down in our high ideals but also keep us going. Eat or be eaten. And like this, one lover’s couple is sacrificed for the other one’s sake. Any culture is still not too distinguished from the circle of nature.
In the end, failure indicates the existence of ideals, ideas and dreams, and life is about love, art, breathing in and out. It is violent and beautiful and way too precious to suffer all the time from all its horrible aspects. Like this, the film gives no explanation, but it explains everything. It gives no solution, but it solves everything. There is a story, but nothing ever happened. Life goes on. The world is still turning. We are still here.
Words by Lisa Says.