In his new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, director and writer Jim Jarmusch explores the burden of infinite life through vampire musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who suffers under the weight of centuries of existence, seeing his great friends: scientists, inventors, writers and musicians rise, and fall. “There’s something about the cycle of life that’s very important,” Jarmusch observes, “and to have that removed would be a burden.”
To survive eternity, Adam keeps his great music to himself, and in the past surrendered his best work to others less capable, his Adagio to Schubert for instance. His friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) is in the same boat; having given his life defining works to Shakespeare, he now endures centuries in the Bard’s mortal shadow, forced into the necessary anonymity of vampirism while Shakespeare gets all the credit.
The only thing in Adam’s life that still brings him happiness is his great love, Eve (Tilda Swinton), who has escaped to Tangiers to read voraciously and relish in the company of Marlowe. Sensing Adam’s malaise, she ventures to Detroit to retrieve him from the depths of despair. Their love has spanned the centuries, but can the fleeting pleasure it brings outweigh the burden of eternity?
The two live in brief bliss, playing jazz and motown, drinking the orgasmic, intoxicating red poison, and traversing the decaying, abandoned city by night. Detroit is a beautiful backdrop to their eternity, Adam showing Eve the Michigan Building, a once grand and glorious theatre with the seats now ripped out and cemented to make a car park. But the remnants of the past remain, the ornate plaster ceiling hovering like a ghost above the stagnant, banal modernity beneath it.
The arrival of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s precocious, selfish and greedy younger sister, ruptures their tranquility. When Ava employs the age-old method of blood extraction (you guessed it) the couple is forced to ask themselves in desperation, whether killing humans really matters anyway, Adam continually dismissing them as “zombies” and condemning them for their destruction of his beautiful Romantic universe. And that is a capital R Romantic, Adam is after all a contemporary of Shelley, Keats and Byron. Of Shelley’s wife, feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Adam tells Eve – whilst sucking on a refreshing blood popsicle – that she was delicious. Lovers of literature will fall have fun picking apart the little in-jokes and jabs at iconic writers.
In true auteur style, cinephile Jarmusch also plants his little odes to the film form, from the fleeting showing of several cinema houses in Tangiers to Adam’s blood supplier calling him famous film monikers from “Dr. Caligari” to “Dr. Strangelove.” For his ardent fans, Jarmusch also alludes to his own films. When Adam suggests they visit a famous Motown recording studio in Detroit, Eve replies that she’s “more of a Stax girl,” alluding to the Memphis recording studio that features so prominently in Jarmusch’s 1989 cult classic, Mystery Train. Adam also shows Eve the house where Jack White grew up, the musician having appeared in his 2004 film Coffee and Cigarettes.
As with all Jarmusch’s films, the music is glorious. As well as a couple of Motown classics, Jarmusch’s rock band Sqürl created the sauntering rock score, perfectly complimenting the slow-paced meandering of the film. While some may find the lack of narrative boring, part of the appeal of Jarmusch’s work is that it gives the audience the chance to breathe, to ponder the philosophical questions he poses, to bathe in the beauty of the aesthetic, to laugh out of surprise or shock rather than expectation. Jarmusch’s films are impressionistic; they’re moody, a feeling more than an experience. And that feeling is pure, uncontaminated cool.