When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow,
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Sonnet 12, William Shakespeare.
Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite directors because he knows what he likes. He likes Bill Murray, the Wu Tang Clan, Tom Waits. He likes black and white. He likes coffee and cigarettes. He likes Roberto Benigni. He likes walking scenes. He likes driving scenes. And Only Lovers Left Alive is a fetish movie in the same way that all of his movies are: it’s about vampires, it’s about guitars, it’s about Detroit, it’s about Tangiers, and it’s about Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, as much as it’s about anything.
[Ed. Note: some light spoilers follow — nothing that will ruin the movie for you, but if you prefer complete surprise, then maybe watch it before reading on.]
Like all of his movies, it’s beautiful – or at least really cool. And that’s the point. It’s meant to be transcendentally cool. From the first scene, with the distorted slowed down version of Wanda Jackson’s Funnel of Love, you know you’re in Jarmusch’s alternate universe that might actually be your universe – you just haven’t quite found the door yet. It achieves this effect so many ways. The movie is fueled by the otherworldly magnetism as Tom Hiddleston as Adam and Tilda Swinton as Eve – they’re a pair of vampires whose marriage has endured for centuries. The movie is filled with all these little easter eggs about how Adam, Eve, and their friend Marlowe (Christopher Marlowe of course, who is also a vampire) have had an outsized, though hidden, impact on history.
They call the humans “zombies” in a sort of bizarre reversal of the undead. Indeed, Jarmusch’s vampires seem to “live” on a different, higher plain, uniquely unaffected by the dramas of the “zombies”. They hide out in obscure places – Tangiers and Detroit – and those settings are as much primary characters as our leads.
Jarmusch is obsessed with place. His movies take place very specifically in places. There are these scenes in cities that make you feel like you have access to the private, intimate nature of a city, that I’ve never encountered in another director’s work. Take for example, Night on Earth, Jarmusch’s film about cab drivers in L.A., New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. Each one offers an astute reading of what the personality is of each place – much thanks to characters like Winona Ryder, and Roberto Benigni, among others.
Here, in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch turns the same lens toward contemporary Detroit and contemporary Tangiers. This is Detroit with a lot of dark space – Hiddleston’s Adam lives in an almost Victorian mansion in an abandoned part of town. It’s an obvious place for a vampire, but it takes a keen eye to see that.
The glimpses of the city that Jarmusch allows, like when Adam sneaks into the hospital to purchase blood from Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Watson with big wads of cash, or when the leads are persuaded to go to a show by Eve’s sister, are striking because of how bare they are. That’s contrasted with Eve’s Tangiers. The contrast between the two cities – and the two leads – is stark, in appearance at least. Eve and Tangiers is constantly dressed in white and lit up with a kind of self-sustaining brilliance. Adam and Detroit are dark. There are no scenes that show either city in the daylight, for obvious reasons, but Detroit and Tom are preternaturally dark. Of course, he’s a suicidal vampire, so that all makes sense.
It seems fairly obvious that Jarmusch conceived of both of these characters with Swinton and Hiddleston in mind. The fact is that Adam was originally supposed to be played by Michael Fassbender – however, it seems almost like a fortuitous turn that Fassbender bowed out before production. Hiddleston seems like a better match for the depressive, reclusive rockstar character – closer to the cliché that we imagine. That’s basically his style From Stranger Than Paradise to Broken Flowers, his films are about not only settings, but about actors and characters. You don’t repeatedly cast Bill Murray as himself because he’s an excellent character actor – you cast Bill Murray as himself because he’s compelling as himself. You also don’t bring up Nicola Tesla in every movie you make because it’s important to the plot.
Likewise, in Only Lovers Left Alive part of the film that is riveting is Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston just being on screen, and being on screen together, and being on screen in Detroit and Tangiers. It could lack dialogue all together, and it would hardly be a detriment to the film. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t engaging or important, it’s just that you can almost watch the film, and listen to the soundtrack, and feel like it’s a complete work. Davis Nusair from Reel Film Review as quoted on Rotten Tomatoes says, “Jarmusch seems content to eschew character development and plot advances in favor of a very specific (and palpable) mood.”
That might be seen as a negative criticism, but that’s essentially what has won Jarmusch critical acclaim in the past. Finding fault with the fact that the characters fail to develop also seems to neglect an important fact: they’re vampires. They’ve been around a long time. They might not be developing all that much at this point, or they might be changing so slowly that we “zombies” can’t see it – a shallow defense, perhaps, but really, they’re undead, they’re not supposed to be like us.
While the characters might not change radically, they aren’t much like most fictional vampires. First off, they don’t kill people for blood (anymore). They find it through relatively “humane” means. They still feed on human blood, but they’ve generally forsaken the old ways. That may be part of the reason that Hiddleston’s Tom is so bummed out. Needless to say, there is drama, and the careful, thoughtful, downright nice actions that the vampires have taken to avoid harming people all fall apart.
Criticisms about the thin plot, and the lack of depth fall flat, because that’s simply misreading the film. The plot is thin because it’s not that important. In fact, almost identical plots could have happened the characters dozens of times before. The focus of the film is the atmosphere, the characters, the deep, strange, history of a possible secret vampire culture, and the impeccably cool visuals that define all Jarmusch films. Certainly the plot isn’t much thinner than most of his other films.
I would watch the Mahler coffee break scene from Coffee & Cigarettes over and over again, for the same reasons I would happily watch Only Lovers Left Alive on repeat: it’s bloody beautiful. In Strangers Than Paradise the Eszter Balint’s Eva listens to I Put a Spell On You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins over and over again for the same reason.
It should be said that the music here is as important as any other Jarmusch film. Here, the music comes from SQÜRL, Jarmush’s band, plus collaborations between Jarmusch and Dutch minimalist Jozef Van Wissem, along with the contributions from Yasmine Hamden, Madeline Follin, and Zola Jesus. The soundtrack at times recalls the scorched earth doom of the Neil Young crafted Dead Man soundtrack. At other times, it’s anchored in the ambiguous time and place of droning strings thanks to Van Wissem. There is also an impressive amount of music in the film – including tracks from Desnise LaSalle, Charlie Feathers, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, White Hills, and many others. You can listen to the whole playlist of music from the film on YouTube:
But more pointedly, that’s what the vampires are doing: the same things beautifully, over and over again, forever. That’s what makes vampires so alien. They exist in a kind of null zone of repetition and beauty. Vampires don’t have the primary plot driver that humans all share: mortality.
At the end Jarmusch kills off an undead Shakespeare – he also plays with the conspiracy theories that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare, but Christopher Marlowe. What does it mean that the primary text of western modernism was composed by a vampire? What does it mean that culture itself is vampiric?
The major drivers of Shakespearean drama are love and death. You could probably just reduce that to death, since all are “borne on the bier.” Weirdly, this makes Only Lovers Left Alive even more poignant: despite the fact that death is far from inevitable (in that the leads are already undead) love becomes even more central.
Love without limits is free to be as cool as possible.