“Twilight” had its problems, but I for one cannot thank it enough for bringing the vampire out of its coffin. The vampire has often been associated with carnal hunger, and while such a facet of humanity was feared for eons, it’s recently been embraced in our ever-widening scope of liberal expression. Because we see the hunger in ourselves, it has become increasingly facile to see the humanity in the vampire. “Twilight” emerged out of this. So did “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I couldn’t be more enamored of the latter.
The only Jim Jarmusch film I’ve previously seen is the 2005 film “Broken Flowers” starring a particularly quiet Bill Murray. Murray is world-weary and asks himself half-heartedly, “What now?” The same goes for “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Tom Hiddleston plays one of the centuries-old vampires, Adam, strumming dismally on his beloved guitars while staring moodily into space and questioning the value of his existence. Both Murray and Hiddleston are narcissistic and nave in their wallowing, and Jarmusch explores the grand possibilities of the “now.”
Hiddleston is one half of the “lovers,” Tilda Swinton adding her Eve to the pairing. I’ve always suspected Swinton of vampirism — her performance leaves nothing to be desired. Her kind, warm gaze and ethereality allude to a kind of angelic disposition rather than carnal. Hiddleston’s stone-faced brooding is vastly interesting. He’s never deliberately rude, but genuinely cannot stand most of what surrounds him. He refers to people as “zombies.”
It’s an apt enough term. As we hear Adam and Eve speak softly to each other about the transience of human existence, it dawns on the audience that humans don’t appreciate the longevity of beauty. Eve spends her time reading timeless poetry, associating her own experiences with those of writers past. Adam does the same with his love for music, although he focuses a bit too much on his own music, referring to it as a reflection of himself. Pair all of that with a conversation that the lovers have regarding the world’s water supply and lack of human foresight, and you have a dreamy layer of transcendentalism to contemplate.
There’s not too much plot. Eve visits Adam, traveling from Tangier to Detroit, and the two wax poetic about the human existence and timeless beauty. They’ve seen it all: the medieval plagues, Shakespeare’s writing process, and Adam even played chess with Mary Wollstonecraft. I craved these offhand remarks about their experiences with immortality. There’s an interesting idea to consider here about those who have made their mark on history, such as Shakespeare and Wollstonecraft, versus those that have faded into obscurity. While Adam and Eve have been alive for centuries, the concept of immortality might be more closely related to eternal fame than long-lived existence. It’s a big, fun idea to consider.
Speaking of fun, Mia Wasikowska shows up at about the halfway point in the film to play Eve’s younger impetuous “sister,” Ava, also a vampire. Her presence is a welcome one, introducing some amusing dissonance between the stoic Adam and the frivolous Ava. She’s the rashness of youth that the film needed, and her entire existence is contrasted by the elderly vampire, Marlowe, (John Hurt). Hurt is a kindhearted vampire with facial wrinkles that visually contradict the idea of everlasting beauty, but they’re juxtaposed by a surprising twinkle in his eye.
There are nods to vampire folklore — the myth of garlic, for one — but for the most part, Jarmusch makes vampirism his own. I’m craving sequels and prequels, and I know that I won’t get them, so I’ll have to make do with the little tidbits of life experiences that the lovers spoke of. It’s a beautiful film with seemingly little going on, but a fascinating discussion of human connection and timelessness underscores the sparse narrative. When Adam asks Eve about her relation to Ava, she tells him that they are sisters because they’re “related by blood.” Jarmusch asks his audience; in a sense, aren’t all humans?