Amongst the many beasties that have come to define horror, vampires have inspired some of the more respectable and emotional exemplars of the genre. However, it usually happens that any insight offered by these films works purely on a level of subtext. Most bumps in the night have no modus operandi beyond death and grue, so intelligent discussions are backgrounded; zombies want to eat brains, not use them. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about vampires but, next to its heavily-accented and caped kin, it is not a vampire film. They may drink human blood, but the protagonists of Jim Jarmusch’s latest are first and foremost to be admired. They are wonderful creatures, blessed with intelligence beyond normal boundaries and the faces of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Lucky them.”
The myth of the vampire has existed for centuries and it has developed certain rules and narratives over time. In most versions, they require blood to survive, they must avoid direct sunlight and a stake to the heart is certain death. Jarmusch is a singular auteur, but the closeness with which he cleaves to the established lore is admirable. Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) are vampires and lovers, living continents apart and forever in fear of detection and the sun. He lives in a rundown corner of Detroit creating snippets of classic hard rock; she hides out in Tangiers, enjoying the company and remembrances of fellow bloodsucker Christopher Marlowe (yes, THAT Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt). After an extended period of separation, broken by chats on Skype, Eve ventures to the States to be reunited with Adam. Even the undead need to be loved, y’see?
Adam is a musician, creating great samples to be played at the local underground circuit in Detroit. To avoid detection he passes himself off as a reclusive music genius, which sits fine with his sole external contact, fawning producer lackey Ian (Anton Yelchin). Jarmusch’s genius links the vampire with another perennial outsider, the artist. Adam is forever distant from the word around him; apart from his vampiricism, he can’t come to terms with technologies and a society evolving at a rate far quicker than he would have been used to centuries before. He has the usual challenge of finding sustenance (leading to some hilarious interplay between Adam and Jeffrey Wright’s unscrupulous haematologist), but also can’t use or share his gifts in the same ways as before. Sensing his isolation, Eve heads to Detroit for a joyous reunion. There’s a tenderness to their embraces that belies previous incarnations of vampires as hyper-sexualised nymphos.
Horror is fertile ground for the imagination, but it is also a pigeonhole. Only Lovers Left Alive transcends the tropes by making the vampire both respectable and identifiable. Adam and Eve may seem all-knowing, but their immortality is a fragile construct. Blood and good company aren’t always easy to find. It’s also good to know that even the undead have to cope with family troubles. Adam and Eve’s reunion is interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a spoilt brat who’s more Bling Ring than Bela Lugosi. This could be all too much for Adam to bear; even vampires are changing their style. Eve’s ice-cold wisdom contrasts sharply with Ava’s here-and-now loquaciousness. Vampires are a product of their time, and when you can’t fit in with the present you can’t hide in the shadows any more.
From all this you can probably discern that, despite the blood-suckers, Only Lovers Left Alive is very much a Jarmusch film. Its humour is dark and witty, and its pace is measured and unhurried. That said, if ever a film was to win over Jarmusch’s critics, this might be it. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the pacing only accentuates the elegance of Hiddleston and Swinton’s features and performances. Despite all this and another great soundtrack, Jarmusch’s latest is a most unlikely elegy, not to anything specific but to the past. Tangiers is all crumbling Moorish arches, whilst the real decay of overstretched modern Detroit is vividly realized. Richer, livelier times have given way to death, whose stench infects the darkened lighting schemes and dour colours in every frame. We all resent the passing of good times, and thus we should all find something to love in Only Lovers Left Alive.