*Warning: Contains spoilers*
A starry sky, red Gothic letters, and music that dripped like honey. As the film began, I realised I had no idea what to expect from Only Lovers Left Alive.
Being a fan of Tom Hiddleston, I’d heard about Only Lovers Left Alive several months earlier (and I think I’m going to need a klaxon for the Obligatory Hiddleston Mention that always seems to turn up in my blogs). I was even more excited when I heard that Tilda Swinton and John Hurt were going to be part of the film. I’d heard it would be about a vampire couple who’d been together for centuries, but apart from that, I knew nothing.
I was watching the film at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford. The cinema has its own bar, and after a beer (plus the couple of drinks I’d had earlier in the evening), my thoughts were perfectly in tune with the strange, dreamlike tone that marks the opening of the film. The two main characters are shot from above, each image spinning, separated – by thousands of miles, as we soon learn – but mirroring each other all the same.
The film continues along these odd, drifting lines, revolving around the two central characters – Adam and Eve, vampires in love, who have been married for centuries. The story itself is simple – eternal lovers shaken by a dangerous outsider, in the form of Eve’s little sister Ava, who brings chaos with none of the thrills. It’s a slow and steady film, which will either frustrate the viewer of slip languidly into your head and take root, as it did me.
Obtaining their blood from hospitals and doctors, the couple, and Eve’s erstwhile companion Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), avoid preying on humans, have accumulated great wealth, and are absorbed in the arts – music, reading, and writing respectively. All of these traits might seem to link the three to another recent group of vampires, but the protagonists of Only Lovers Left Alive are a far cry from the Cullens. As Michael Cusumano observes:
Only Lovers barely touches on the tropes of the vampire mythology. Bats, crosses and wooden stakes are nowhere to be found. Rather, Jarmusch’s film is interested in vampires as a state of mind. What becomes of a being when life has no meaning because it never ends? The film doesn’t stack up urgent plot points so much as it sinks slowly into its atmosphere of sexy gloom.
Adam’s expositions on theories of quantum entanglement, the ‘spooky action at a distance’ that causes two previously entangled particles to resonate ‘even at opposite ends of the universe’, is a clear parallel for the lives of the vampire husband and wife. Their separate symmetry at the beginning of the film is echoed at the end, when, starving, they drift together through the streets of Tangiers, unconsciously echoing each others’ movements.
A couple of days ago, I watched the film for the second time (via a DVD I’d bought from France, because I couldn’t wait for the UK September release). I was struck again by the contrast between the two main characters, shown through the repeated motifs of colour; Adam’s darkness and Eve’s light, Eve’s ‘thrilling chaos’ and Adam’s morbid stagnation, reflected in their clothes and their actions. Watching the DVD, I noticed even more of these little touches – particularly the fact that, in lieu of wedding rings, Eve wears a black bead and Adam a white one, underlining their connection as vampire yin and yang. Occasionally, these visual devices get to be a little too much. As Sarah Mirk notes, ‘The film is mostly a fun, sweet character study, but it’s enjoyable flow is marred periodically by its own desire to be cool…the heavy handed, black-and-white, Adam-and-Eve setup [might] cause audiences to roll their eyes from the outset’ –forexample, the sudden appearance of a skunk, combining black and white, just before the characters meet on-screen for the first time.
The film is not perfect – the heaviness of the focus on the characters means that when the narrative intrudes, it can do so in a way as jarring as the faceless fans ringing Adam’s doorbell. At one point, the plot is only advanced by Adam and Eve taking a firm grasp of the Idiot Ball. Really, guys, leaving your pet human alone with your volatile, blood-addicted baby sister and expecting her to let him go once he’s finished his beer? Adam has no right to sound so shocked when he exclaims to Ava “You drank Ian. You drank…Ian.”
Additionally, as a commenter on Michael Cusumano’s article points out, ‘there was a weird and somewhat intriguing theme of “(white) vampires as decadent imperialists” that I’m not sure was intentional and self-critical or an uncomfortable oversight.’ Adam lives in an unrealistically whitewashed Detroit, while Eve and Marlowe feed from but never engage with Tangiers. The vampires occupy a detached, privileged, and, yes, imperialistic position, an ivory tower from which they can observe and judge the ‘zombies’ (humans) without attempting to understand them.
On first viewing, this focus on whiteness and richness made me distinctly uncomfortable, but the second time around, I’m leaning more towards the possibility that it is, indeed, self-critical. At the end of the film, Adam and Eve, forced to flee Detroit and unable to get blood from the dying Marlowe, roam Tangiers, clearly only a shade away from starving to death. At one point, Adam comments ‘We’re finished, aren’t we?’ They then chose to feed from a young Moroccan couple, having decided to turn them – at which point, the film ends.
When I first watched the film, I read this as a (perhaps unconscious) illustration of the parasitical nature of colonialism – the two white, European vampires literally sustaining themselves with the lifeblood of people of colour. However, during the rewatch, I realised that the final scenes in Tangiers differ enormously from the rest of the film. Near the end, Adam and Eve watch a young woman singing in a local café, in a scene full of colour and life that obliterates the black-and-white feel of the film so far. Instead of dominating the human world, the two vampires are overwhelmed by it – and there is no guarantee that the blood they drain from the young couple will save them. We know, though, that the couple will be turned, and begin their lives as vampires from their grounding in the vibrant bustle of Tangiers. The film sets up the two young POC characters as successors to Adam and Eve, suggesting that ‘decadent imperialism’ has had its day, and will be over with the sunrise.
However you interpret Only Lovers Left Alive, it’s certainly worth a watch. The music is rich and hypnotic. The dialogue is stunning – sometimes eloquent and poetic, sometimes spiking with wit as sharp as a vampire’s fang (“Doctor…Faust” cracks me up every time). The best part, though, is the performances of the main characters, which are truly magical. A while ago – I can’t remember where – I read a quote that went ‘Good actors make themselves into the characters. Great actors make the characters into themselves’. This is certainly true of Hiddleston, Swinton and Hurt, all of whom knock it out of the park with their performances. Mia Wasikowska, too, is brilliant – through the character of Ava, she brings a sharp edge of wakefulness into the dreamlike atmosphere of the film. Jarmusch’s vampires are compelling and engaging, and, thankfully, there’s not a sparkle in sight.