Temps mort: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

"only lovers left alive"

By Andrew Tracy

“I’m sick of it—these zombies, what they’ve done to the world, their fear of their own imaginations,” laments the vampiric Adam (Tom Hiddleston) via videophone to his similarly succubal, Tangier-dwelling lady love Eve (Tilda Swinton) early in Only Lovers Left Alive. Zeitgeist be damned, nevertheless it’s fitting that the predominant pop-cultural ghouls of the time be set up as the opposing poles of Only Lovers’ moral universe (even if one of them is here only figurative), as many of the motifs once associated with bloodsucking undead – infection and disease, death and decay—have passed on to the flesh-eating walking dead. How and why that transfer occurred would require a tiresome pop-cult exegesis, so for the moment let’s just suggest that one of the reasons might have to do with the nature of the beasts’ respective hungers. If vampiric bloodlust can be all-consuming, it’s also controllable once sated; the craving does not crowd out culture and civility. Zombified hunger, by contrast, is endless and mindless: it is constant consumption, consumption as the sole drive of a once-human vessel emptied of absolutely everything else. As good old George A. Romero’s use of the shambling ghouls for a leftist critique of rampaging capitalism and middle-class apathy has evolved, in this fast-zombie era, into a stealth right-wing vision of the revolt of the underclass hordes, the less overtly political vampire genre has more and more made vampirism a marker of cultural elitism; to paraphrase Orwell on Graham Greene, vampirism seems a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for the culturati only.

This, of course, is the central—and, conceptually if not in execution, very funny—joke of Only Lovers’ premise: vampires as the ultimate in world-weary hipsters, immortality granting them the ability to quite literally be there for and have seen everything before you did. “We’ve seen all this before,” Eve comforts the morose Adam as he decries the dreadful state of all that he surveys; “If the sand is running out, time to turn the hourglass upside down again.” But even eternal life, it seems, is not enough to withstand the corrosion of the contemporary world, and in this—as well as its insistent cine-, biblio- and melophilic motifs, full-stop for musical numbers and Adam’s underlined invocation of “imagination”—Only Lovers is in many ways a continuation of Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control (2009), rather than (or in addition to) the smirking autoportrait/critique that many were expecting it to be.

While it would certainly be easy for him to simply fall back on those most obviously recognizable elements of his style, Jarmusch, if not alone in this among American filmmakers, has nevertheless been notable for never resting on his laurels. Even when he literally returned to his past work in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) by stitching together three of the deadpan vignettes he made from 1986 to 1993, the eight new episodes he built around that core subtly developed his formerly modest conceit into an intricate little comic-philosophical machine. More ambitious and considerably less successful, Limits saw Jarmusch expanding his aesthetic palette (with self-consciously painterly compositions and architectural framings à la Costa) while foreshortening his thematic depth. Forgoing the elegant and evocative thematic windings of C & C, Jarmusch here moved message downstage, garbed in a filigree-thin coating of enigma. A radical-democratic manifesto of cultural resistance to globalized capitalist hegemony—which culminated in Isaach De Bankolé’s nameless, nattily besuited culture crusader “using his imagination” to impossibly bypass unbreachable security and strangle the personification of politico-corporate greed (a Cheney-channelling Bill Murray) with a string from a legendary guitar—Limits was, to lazily (and shamelessly) quote myself, “not an artistic experience in itself but a series of attitudes and postures towards art.” If Jarmusch’s sentiments were hard to disagree with for anybody who continues to care about art in this as-always-and-moreso art-unfriendly world, the artistic vehicle in which they travelled was, in terms of art qua art, largely negligible.

Though equipped with a protective layer of irony given its conceptual conceit and genre trappings, Only Lovers is no less earnest than its predecessor when it comes to decrying the evils of this world. A revered rock musician now withdrawn into Scott Walker-like seclusion, Adam has holed up in a crumbling, isolated mansion on the outskirts of the always crumbling Detroit, composing thunderously doomy instrumentals intended to be heard by no one; depressed and intermittently suicidal, his only links to the outside world are the scruffy-haired scrounger Ian (Anton Yelchin, giving a serviceably dude-y performance), who hooks him up with everything from vintage guitars to a custom-made wooden bullet, and a crooked doctor at an inner-city hospital (Jeffrey Wright, monotonously mugging), who keeps the contraband plasma flowing to slake that old undead thirst. Following their vid-chat, Eve decamps from her Bowles-country retreat and the company of her old friend Kit (John Hurt), nee Christopher Marlowe (“I do wish I’d met Adam before I wrote Hamlet,” he muses, “he would have made a marvellous model”) to reunite with her immortal beloved.

Basking in their renewed connubial bliss, the duo quickly settle down to a series of nocturnal reveries where they engage in name-dropping reminiscences (“Byron was a pompous bore,” recalls Adam, “though Mary Wollstonecraft was delicious”), quaff elegant shots of O-negative, and do the town, such as it is: driving past long abandoned auto plants; touring the remains of the once-majestic Michigan Theater, its glorious Renaissance-style roof now arching above a parking lot (which itself stands on the site of Henry Ford’s first garage); and as a balm for the wounded soul, doing a drive-by of the childhood home of one of their culture heroes (“Oh, I love Jack White!” coos Eve as Adam points out the former Stripe’s dead-weathered digs). Even as Adam repeatedly claims “I don’t have any heroes,” the film is flush with them: Eve forgoes packing clothes for her transatlantic trip in order to stuff her suitcase with beloved books from Cervantes through to David Foster Wallace, their spines lovingly lingered over by Jarmusch’s camera; Adam’s living-room studio sports a photo wall of artistic luminaries, from Kafka and Twain to Nick Ray and Joe Strummer; Adam gloomily name-checks the great scientists whose breakthroughs were met with persecution and exploitation, from Galileo through to Tesla and Einstein (“And they’re still arguing about Darwin”).

On one, very prominent, level, this is what Only Lovers boils down to: a lament by the culturally and cultishly cool about the injustices visited upon the great (themselves included, perhaps) at the hands of the philistine “zombies” who have snuffed out the brightest lights of their culture while poisoning the planet. Though one should obviously be cautious about reading any character as an author’s mouthpiece, it’s hardly an undue interpretive leap to see in Adam’s immiserated monologues the director’s actual feelings about the way the world has gone, though perhaps absent Adam’s wider-ranging rancour (which extends even to those “zombie rock ‘n’ roll kids” who idolize him). Ostentatiously super-stylish in shades, elegant leather gloves and attractively cut duds, Adam and Eve may be mildly self-spoofing vicars for Jarmusch and his set (“I love your gloves, they’re really cool,” enthuses goofy Ian to the impeccably poised couple during a night out in a rock club), but they are vicars nonetheless. “You’re just a couple of condescending snobs!” shrieks Eve’s flakey sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) at the pair as they eject her from the house after she unwelcomely crashes their idyll, an imprecation that’s both groaningly self-aware and utterly without force; Jarmusch is too smart to not mount a counter-argument to his onscreen representatives’ luxurious despair, but too onside with the latter to give its rebuttal any real sense of self-critique.

Of course, it’s not as if Jarmusch is bound to make any kind of self-critique here at all, however much one might wish to read Only Lovers as a portrait of the artist as aged hipster based solely on its scenario—but as the film is never truly witty, moving, stylistically distinguished or conceptually thought-through, one is left seeking out whatever other interpretive avenues might be left them. On the last-named point, outside of the immortality aspect the vampire metaphor remains curiously underdeveloped. It would have fit if Jarmusch’s seen-it-all scenesters pursued blood in a strictly functional, quotidian manner, as the means to sustain their centuries-long sulk, but Jarmusch quite explicitly films their imbibings as though they were getting a fix: heads slowly sinking backwards in a dreamy narcotic haze, fangs emerging in ecstatic grins. There are numerous possible lines of thematic development this motif of rapture could have followed, given the amorous connotations of the film’s title (and the fact that it is a profoundly solitary rapture might have introduced an intriguingly ironic note to Adam and Eve’s not exactly Edenic reunion) but those paths remain resolutely untaken.

(Also, on the autocritical note: surely there is something to be explored here about how the undead lovers’ immortal existence and lavishly appointed malaise is predicated on quite literally feeding off those very “zombies” they scorn? There is, finally, some attention paid to the lovers’ innately predatory nature in the final scenes, when the plasma-starved duo set their sights on an obliviously amorous couple, but this only highlights the film’s vagueness about Adam and Eve’s view of/relationship to the humans who are their inferiors, occasional inspirations, and prey.)

Furthermore, the leadenness of the assorted would-be bon mots is equal to that of late-period Woody Allen (there’s even an unfunny slap at Los Angeles), and not helped by their lugubrious delivery. In looks and bearing alone, Hiddleston and Swinton are almost too perfectly cast as the nosferatic lovers—Hiddleston with his big liquid eyes and hushed, beautifully timbred voice, Swinton with her sharp, birdlike features and regally otherworldly air—but their posturingly arch, almost self-impressed readings (especially Swinton’s) only highlight the dialogue’s gracelessness. Speaking of Woody, there is present here—not only in the incessant name-dropping but in the ample durational space granted a set by psych-rock band White Hills and an (admittedly pretty great) performance by Lebanese chanteuse Yasmine Hamdan—what some might read as a comparable blurring of the line between reverent homage or sincere enthusiasm and self-flattering display of one’s taste. (“God, I hope she doesn’t become famous,” declares an admiring Adam of Hamdan, “That would be the worst.”)

So in sum, Only Lovers is (to echo Adam’s disaffected declaration) something of a drag. Starved of actual aesthetic rewards, then, let’s turn to one of the film’s more interesting, though still underdeveloped, undercurrents: the fluid nature of authorship, which stands in intriguing contrast to Jarmusch’s totemic brandishing of iconic names. “Why don’t you let on?” Eve chides Marlowe early on, urging him to own up to his penning of the Shakespeare canon, “It would cause such delicious chaos.” “I think the world has enough chaos right now,” replies Kit—and later, mirroring Adam’s rationale for apparently “giving” Schubert the adagio for one of his symphonies, he will concur that “getting the work out there,” attached names aside, is the most important thing.

Through equal parts design and conceptual confusion, Jarmusch sets up his vampiric protagonists as both the secret source of some of our culture’s greatest accomplishments and admiring, discerning critics of the best that we have attained, both participants and observers. And as they disclaim any truth as to their origins in their cheekily adopted monikers (Adam also travels as “Dr. Faust” while clandestinely infiltrating the hospital in scrubs and surgical mask, and Wright’s “Dr. Watson” refers to him subsequently, and unfunnily, as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Dr. Caligari”), it is the work itself which stands—whether the music that Adam creates in his solitary studio, or Eve’s readings from Marlowe on the soundtrack, or the onscreen performances that Jarmusch refuses to interrupt. Even as he is a distinctive artist in himself, Jarmusch has consistently demonstrated in his work an eagerness to incorporate the work and the culture of others—not to appropriate it, exploit it, or extrinsically augment his own work by it, but to admiringly display it, to make it available. If in Only Lovers Jarmusch’s own art unfortunately falls flat, he at least consistently reminds us, within the very text of his films, that his is only one small facet of a vaster, shared artistic culture, and one that is very much alive.