Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s wry, dust-caked lament for the ways of the past and withering put-down of the post-modern romantics who would lament with him is probably the quintessential Jarmusch film, which is different from being the best. Part of the film’s revelatory reality is simply a divine meeting of subject and author: Jarmusch’s characters have always occupied a state somewhere between cadaverous moan and death-enclosed howl even in their nominal life, so Jarmusch has made a several-decade career out of opening an unstated portal between the live and the dead anyway. The literal, manifest “death” in Only Lovers Left Alive (yes, it’s a vampire film) falls right into place, you might say, and Jarmusch’s sly, detached wit and fatal-loined aesthetic luxuriance follow like zombies to a fresh brain. Or hipsters to a Robert Johnson record.
Jarmusch’s main character Adam (Tom Hiddleston) certainly fills both bills, although he derives no passion from either. Having long ago sequestered himself into the dying remnants of Detroit, this centuries’ old vampire has fated himself to a tomb of individualist post-modern cool and aged, withered post-industrial malaise. Within the hallowed halls of a city falling apart, stripped of its egocentric cool by tectonic capitalist shifts, Adam tries to cordon off and preserve his past, playing curator to his own memories and walling himself off within several layers of music memorabilia and classical literature of the cultural intelligentsia. His pallid skin is a victim of his willful alienation from the world as well as a marker of his self-serving, self-imposed superiority to it. His apartment is little more than a mausoleum to portraits of fallen artists of all mediums, themselves trapped in their own frames much like Adam.
His wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), has confined herself to a similar life in the seemingly empty streets of Mediterranean Tangier, chilling with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who is still angry about society’s failure to recognize him as the renaissance man he and Eve know him to be. The only trouble is that Adam’s wallowing existence in the bookshelves of the past has depressed him something fierce, and his human familiar (Anton Yelchin) isn’t much help. When Eve arrives to cheer him up, further contortion arrives out of the underground catacombs of the early ’90s gutter-punk scene in the form of Eve’s younger sister. She’s played by Mia Wasikowska because, with Hiddleston and Swinton filling out two-thirds of a gangly, bleached-white, post-human collage, why not go for the full tripartite?
Only Lovers isn’t much for plot, though, but then again none of Jarmusch’s films have been. As a director, he has tested the boundaries of cinematic fiction with his deceptively presentational style and viscous refusal to cater to the realms of naturalism. His masterpiece, 1995’s Dead Man, curdles the Western genre down to its minimalist girders and rotten woodwork, relinquishing the formalities of world construction for a Dadaist performance art piece pitched at the level of a high school play. Only Lovers isn’t quite that alienating, largely because the latent content in all of Jarmusch’s films is more manifest and explicit here, not so much disrupting the characters as persisting within them.
A fact that makes Only Lovers ever so slightly less special than Jarmusch’s most deconstructive exercises in the formal language of cinema, making Only Lovers a sort of Baby’s First Art Cinema Export. Which is lovely on its own merits, especially when it allows Jarmusch to indulge in his production team of designer Marco Bittner Rosser, cinematographer Yorick Le Sauz, and costumer designer Bina Daigeler, all of whom pull double-duty encasing the film in the intoxicants of aesthetic sensuality while also constricting the film’s characters via this very astringent strain of post-coital aesthetic fixation. The old “spellbindingly gorgeous film as a critique of people bound by those spells” trick is nothing new, of course. Max Ophuls and Luchino Visconti were pulling out all the stops of their baroquely ornate sets and presentational styles around the time Jarmusch was born. Our current subject is simply a cover with a unique style of its own: it’s the dusted-off Americana, hipster version of a classical, European composition.
Temptation calls with complaints that Jarmusch has turned old fogey with age, crying foul at today’s youth for not imbibing in his own brand of reclusive, earthen pop culture. Yet if Adam is in many ways a stand-in for Jarmusch, as many critics have it, the venerable director also uses Adam as a punching bag, seeking the refuge of self-mockery if not necessarily self-loathing in making fun of Adam’s addiction to nostalgia for the past. The film’s relationship to this character is suitably tortured, on one hand tipping its hat to him for his commitment to the analog ways of old. But over-baked gestures on Adam’s part, such as a Facetime app rigged up to a craggy television for a false semblance of “retro”, do not escape Jarmusch’s critical eye.
The film is keenly aware that many of Adam’s habits are vaingloriously self-serving (particularly incisive is Jarmusch’s scabrous treatment of the way the elitist vampires consider regular human blood less than pure in an age of cultural degradation). If Jarmusch is naturally smitten with these characters, his film is never in the business of letting them off the hook (the “romantic lost souls” nature of the piece is, from another angle, a satire of the very same cliches). For a film that initially seems deadened from the get-go, it draws mighty life out of sucking its own blood. This beguiling blend of the lethargic and the carnivorous, the dejected and the ebullient, both basking in faded glory and rejecting a life set to the passive “bask”, defies definition precisely because its fangs are always perched right at its own neck.