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Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch on Loneliness

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

"Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make." Vampire films used to be horrifying tales of gross and incomprehensible terror. But every once in a while a new spin transforms the pale faced monsters into something very different, in this case, bohemian romantics.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch 'Only Lovers Left Alive' follows insatiably-in-love couple Adam and Eve, cursively played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, as they are reunited after some time apart. Adam and Eve are the coolest vampires since David and his biker crew from 'The Lost Boys' however unlike most denizens of the night they don’t hang around peoples necks like blue-arsed flies. “This is the 21st century…” as Eve concludes and they have to acquire sustenance in a more mannerly way.

Eve roams the eerily quiet streets of Tangier at night and is mentored by John Hurt’s Kit Marlowe, another bloodsucker who we later find out is still troubled by Shakespeare’s successful accreditation of his own work. Kit provides Eve with O-Negative human blood, the best of the best, the good stuff. While Eve lingers in late night cafés, ignoring the irritating locals, Adam has made house in Detroit. He is a broody musician who has allowed his immortal depression to consume his entire existence. He doesn’t have a mentor but he does have some “friends” that help him out in his time of need. Jeffery Wright is the doctor who supplies the blood and Anton Yelchin plays Ian, the musician friend who supplies everything else. Eager to please and blinded by Adam’s undeniable coolness, Ian basically does what is asked without question. Yelchin is infectious and while this isn't his stand out career performance (see Jeremy Saulnier's 'Green Room') watching this is a harsh reminder that his talent was almost limitless. We’ll talk more about Ian soon.

When Eve comes to visit Adam they spend their evenings draped in silk sheets, caressing each other’s skin, ethereal like, giving themselves up to experimental music and getting high on blood. For that is what blood is to them, it’s both food and drug.

From the outset it’s abundantly clear that despite this film being about vampires, it’s nowhere even close to being a traditional horror film. In fact Jarmusch chooses not to even bother addressing the more obvious and frightening aspects of what we've come to know of a vampire's life (Life? LOL). Anyone already privy to the familiarities of Jarmusch’s work won't be surprised by that submission. The pace of the movie is a reflection of the characters lives themselves. Much like a lot of his previous work, this is a slow-burner that chooses to focus on the romanticism of art, music, literature and love. Instead of assuming the traditional portrayal of vampires as monsters, Jarmusch elects to give their characters more gravitas, more eloquence. He attempts to dissect the burden of inevitable loneliness and the humbling monotony of immortality. Adam and Eve are tortured souls now who are merely surviving through a new generation of zombies (that’s what they call humans). Is this Jim Jarmusch's not-so-subtle way of saying that alll humans are actually just sheep? Slaves to all modern consumptions? That today's society have turned into brain dead zombies? It does feel like that doesn't it? He's also asking the question "Is it possible to feel alone even when your essence is bound to another's for the rest of your life?" (There's that word again. LOL) There's certainly similar approaches that Jarmusch would revisit 6 years later in another "horror"film 'The Dead Don't Die' starring Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny. He applies that same plodding structure. Although the latter had a little more charm and subtle humour it lacked the intrinsic flowery artistry that is often found in Jarmusch's projects.

The film changes pace once Eve’s estranged “little sister” Ava arrives, uninvited. The notion of her is hinted at towards the beginning of the picture when both Marlowe and Adam mention to Eve that they had dreams about her. She’s like a younger, smaller more petulant version of Eve and it’s clear that Adam has no love for her, especially since the “incident” in Paris. This is never explained but we can guess. After a night out and plentiful drinking, the group retire to Adam’s apartment. Remember Ian? He has joined them and has taken a shine to Ava. Unfortunately she has also got her eyes on him too and one thing leads to another…

After Adam throws her back on the street, he and Eve decide to go back to Tangier were their worst fears are realised. Marlowe has been poisoned and so their only safe method of sustenance has been compromised. Having spent centuries attempting to adhere to a certain modern day, moral code they are forced to return to the belittling, decadent monsters that so many judge them to be.

If you like your movies to be plot-heavy then you might have issues with this one. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this is an art film but it definitely lends itself towards those ideals (Who am I kidding, it definitely IS an art film) Jarmusch has been an indie darling for many years now and his hipsterism is elevated to great lengths here. Very little happens in the first 40 minutes but it’s hard not to enjoy Hiddleston and Swinton melting off the sofa like a Salvador Dali painting. They really are that cool. The set design is amazing. Adam’s lavish apartment is littered with vintage guitars, retro musical equipment, vinyl records and antique furnishings. It feels like this is a carefully curated museum brought to life by Jarmusch himself. There’s a hypnotic tinge to everything. Velvet reds and grimy greens. A beautiful stylised piece of filmmaking.

I love Jarmusch’s subtle play with vampire lore too. Eve initially wears gloves because she has a hypersensitive touch which enables her to pinpoint a specific age to any object and the idea that although immortal, vampires are not immune from poisoning (aka drinking dirty blood). It's also difficult to escape Jarmusch's real life obsession with music. After all he is a musician on the side (his band recorded additional music for the original score) There’s a real Velvet Underground thing happening throughout the entire film, which is absolutely not a negative.

'Only Lovers Left Alive' gives hope that modern vampire films don’t need to be conventional and certainly don't need to rely on blood and/or gore, but lots of horror fans might struggle to stay interested in this. It's strange and unusual. Fanciful and droll. It might appease your inner goth without ever being overtly gothic in it's presentation. If you're looking for scares then this isn't the film for you. But if you're eager for a fresh and idiosyncratic take on immortal romanticism then you might be in for a treat.

- Gavin Logan

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