Only Lovers Left Alive
Vampires always mix together aspects of wish-fulfillment and dread, the glamour of eternal youth and immortality eternally wedded to an insatiable thirst for human blood. Only Lovers Left Alive tailors its fantasy to indie aesthetes while contextualizing it as just one intersection of melancholic romanticism and vampirism. Tom Hiddleston’s Adam is a wealthy, indulgent, entitled musician who lives as a shut in in the wastelands of de-urbanized Detroit. Emotionally immature and prone to apocalyptic moping despite his immense age, he spends his days fiddling with massive wired contraptions and recording music on antiquated equipment. Tilda Swinton’s Eve, meanwhile, can read a page per second in seemingly any language and lives an idyllic and idle existence in Tangier, Morocco. The two of them are longtime lovers and spouses, and shortly into the film they cannot bear the distance between them any longer. Eve takes a night flight to Detroit and the two reunite, feeding on a steady diet of contraband O negative appropriated from a local hospital. Eventually, complications arise in the plot due to the entrance of Mia Wasikovska’s Ava, by far the most impulsive of the three, who cannot adapt to the hermetic existence forced on her kind in the 21st century. In the final moments of the film, the two are left starving in Tangier, having been forced to flee because of a murder Ava commits. To put the core narrative in a nutshell, it’s a story of terminal, immortal nostalgics who exist as parasites in more way than one, bind closer together in a hostile world, and are forced back to their primal existence by hardship. Where I want to take this piece has more to do with the way the story of Adam and Eve mirrors the story of the city of Detroit and how Jarmusch’s end-of-the-world anxiety ties into all of this.
Detroit as seen through Jarmusch’s lens is a testament to human failure, as well as a liminal space where civilization’s erosion has left a world returning to the wild. Home to castoffs and wild [human and nonhuman] animals––as well as at least one apparently hip underground music club––the film depicts the city only at night, rendering its melancholic decay all the more poignant. Of course, this poignance is bought at the cost of erasing the very real humans who continue to live in Detroit, more than four fifths of whom are black. Similarly to the comic Pride of Baghdad, Only Lovers Left Alive takes a setting as a mostly symbolic backdrop, a fountain of emotional resonance that the artist can use to generate a stronger response. So be it, we might say. However, my objection is that the idea of Detroit as unclaimed territory, a den for misanthropes and bohemians to “fix up” is part and parcel with the myth of gentrification. Perhaps vampire aristocrats are not, in fact, going to recolonize Detroit in the name of experimental drone rock. At the same time, Jarmusch mostly sees Detroit as a museum, and Tangier as mere backdrop. His fetishism of aristocrats goes further than this, however, extending to his inclusion of a vampiric Christopher Marlowe, whom he uses as a moutpiece for his anti-Stratfordian views.
On the one hand, we can appreciate Only Lovers Left Alive as the story of capital––another vampire, altogether more insidious––and its ability to suck the life out of the planet and from people. The forms of elitist alienation we are mostly treated to here are not the most helpful, but it does have a keen grasp of how need and impulse drive people to do things against their more “civilized” instincts. In that way it is, despite its somewhat aloof nature and its fantasy/apocalyptic depiction of Detroit, more perceptive than your average film. I appreciated the way that it updated the vampiric myth and showed how such supernatural beings could fall out of step with the world, degenerating despite their immortality.My objections to the film’s politics and Jarmusch’s conspiracy-mongering aside, Only Lovers Left Alive is a beautiful date movie, so if all else fails, the film still has that to rely on.