Like Wong Kar Wai, Jim Jarmusch is a film-maker whose coolness and preciousness can really rub me the wrong way, but whose genre films I usually find more compelling. His anti-Western, Dead Man (1995), is the one thing of his I really love. The big city boy’s aversion to all things rural and small town give it a potent edge. Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t quite as strong, but it’s up there with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) for stylish, deadpan genre pleasures.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire story. It’s not a horror story, and it isn’t very gothic either, although it does have a bit of gothic atmosphere, including an old dark house. It’s really a vampires-as-junkies story, with the protagonists Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) living the jet-setting bohemian lifestyle of rock musicians or perhaps independent film-makers. They listen to (and create) cool, druggy music, read obscure classics of literature in the original languages, dress in vintage clothing, and drive around at night visiting decaying old abandoned buildings. They are always weary, pale, and languid — the vampire as strung-out hipster. Drinking human blood gives them a druglike ecstatic rush, and Adam and Eve are connoisseurs of only the finest blood types.
If there is an ironic joke in this equation of hipsterism and vampirism, it’s very subtle. Mostly it seems to be a celebration of the bohemian lifestyle, and it looks like a lot of fun. They somehow have endless wads of money, credit cards, and fake passports, they own endless supplies of cool old guitars, cars, and books, they know everything there is to know, they’ve hung out with famous people through the ages, they have all the time in the world to do whatever they want to do, and, let’s face it, Swinton and Hiddleston look fabulous. Very sexy, these vamps, as they loll and lollygag about in ancient dressing gowns and black leather boots.
Some of it is too precious for my tastes. The name-dropping of old literary and musical stars that they’ve hobnobbed with is nothing more than clever in-jokes, and having Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) show up as a vampire never does add up to much, except for a couple of lame jokes about Shakespeare. The joke (shown in the trailer) about how Adam gave Schubert an adagio for one of his famous chamber pieces also seems pointlessly clever. All of this is a way to congratulate the knowing audience for getting the references.
Except. Adam follows up the punchline about the Schubert adagio with a remark (which echoes something he says earlier and again later) about how it was a way for him to get his work out into the world. This is one of the interesting questions Jarmusch plays around with in his vampire revisionism, which is that if you’re a vampire genius, how do you express your genius without drawing attention to yourself? Attention is an existential threat to the vampires. They need to be invisible to survive. Yet they also want to express themselves; they want to be heard. There’s a zen paradox in this that Jarmusch rightly handles lightly, treating it as an affectionate joke about the hipster hatred of people who sell out their art for fame. Like Shakespeare, for instance.
What makes the film work despite the preciousness is the sweet affection between Eve and Adam (beautifully played by Swinton and Hiddleston), the sense of uncanny weirdness and mystery (things left unexplained such as Eve’s ability to speed read, or why she considers Eva her sister, why the bullet Adam wants needs to be made of wood, or when and how the protagonists became vampires), and the nerdy delight the vampires take in scientific knowledge. They always cite the scientific name of the plants and animals they observe. Adam delivers a rant about the mistreatment of scientists over the years. More impressively, he has invented a system of power generation that’s far in advance of “zombie” (i.e., human) technology. Eve, in turn, imagines Detroit as paradise in a future where climate change has destroyed the cities of the South.
If the disdain the vampires feel toward the idiot living “zombies” who are ruining the world seems to echo the hipster superiority complex, is that a subtle joke, or is it the Jarmusch worldview? Are the vampires really above it all? They’re removed from the world, but still they’ve got their problems. Fortunately Adam and Eve have each other, and their love is more precious than being cool. Whatever gets you through the day, eh?