By Afra Nariman
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt
Two sophisticated, hipster vampire lovers, who have witnessed centuries of life on Earth, navigate the modern world, removed from the great philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers whom they lived their lives not only admiring, but knowing and befriending. They find themselves living in a new world, one where they are unsure they fit into, but find that their love outlasts any and all obstacles in their path. Reflecting upon philosophy, science and art, the two blood-suckers continue to live on, remembering the past but staying in the moment… staying in love.
Perhaps the most “Jarmusch-like” of all of Jim Jarmusch’s films, Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on philosophy, art, music and science; bluntly featuring the filmmaker’s own philosophical interests and ideas, more than any of his other films do. On the surface, this film is a vampire-romance, telling the story of an ancient marriage that dates back centuries. Their love for one another hasn’t diminished one bit over the years. When you look closer though, this film explores the modern-day life of vampires, and as all of Jarmusch’s films do, highlight the life of misfits. The film also explores morality. Adam (played by Hiddleston) and Eve (played by Swinton), deal with the constant moral dilemma of resisting to kill humans, even though they need their blood to survive. Instead, they choose to find their blood in different, nonviolent ways. Their morality, responsibility and intelligence is most apparent when Eve’s little sister comes to visit. Adam and Eve have spent their long, endless years on Earth, cultivating their minds and hearts, while Eve’s sister, Ava, has never really grown out of her “teenage” phase.
Ironically named Adam and Eve (from the Bible), the two lovers spend their nights driving around Detroit, listening to music, playing music, reading, and reminiscing the great philosophers, scientists and artists that they have come to know over the centuries. Jarmusch has created a vampire movie that is unlike any other. It shows us another side of the story, other than the bloodsucking side. Only Lovers Left Alive tells us a story about everlasting love and also offers us an existential look at mortality, through their lack of it. He has created a new perspective on what it would be like to be a vampire, or just plainly, immortal. The film serves as a jumping-off point to reflect on our own lives in reference to the lives lived by Adam and Eve. What would be our lifestyle, our mindset and our level of happiness, if we were immortal? The two sophisticated bloodsuckers have spent centuries watching the years pass by, the world evolving and perhaps devolving. In many ways, the film is also an “Ode to the Past,” highlighting the importance of great minds such as Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin and many other thinkers whose pictures are on Adam’s “wall of fame,” so to speak. Jarmusch, through Adam’s character, expresses his disdain for those who ignored what thinkers like Tesla and Darwin theorized and advocated for. Of Tesla, Adam expresses that if we had just listened to Tesla, the world would be a much better place. And in reference to Darwin, Adam criticizes earlier Christians who refused to accept his discoveries. Perhaps in including these sentiments, Jarmusch is expressing the importance of people thinking for themselves, accepting new ways of thinking, valuing wisdom, philosophy and science, and/or just being different than the status quo. It is those things that many of Jarmusch’s films succeed in doing, and this film is one of his greatest feats in that area. Like many of his movies, there is a poetic and hypnotic element to watching this film. You feel like you’re in a trance, partly because of the patient pace and the accompanying music, and partly because you are watching something completely different than anything else you’ve ever watched.
Only Lovers Left Alive is also an existential study of meaning. Who better to tell us whether or not life has meaning, than two worldly beings who have been around for numerous lifetimes? Evident throughout, Adam’s meaning comes from music, and Eve’s from literature. After centuries of witnessing the greatest artists and intellectuals who ever lived, they find themselves living in a modern world that they can’t find their place in. Early in the film, it seems that Adam is losing sight of his meaning, as he musters up a plan to commit suicide, until Eve returns to him and they are reminded that above all else, their meaning comes from the love they have for one another.
As ancient, nocturnal, artistic and intellectually sophisticated vampires, who wish nothing more than to return to Earth’s glory days, when philosophy and art were at their peak, Adam and Eve are misfits in the world that they find themselves (at times) reluctantly living in. They do not fit in with other humans for obvious reasons, and they don’t fit in with most vampires either, as we saw through the differentiations between themselves and Ava, in morality and intellectuality. It seems as if they are amongst the last living souls who value the parts of life that they believe matter. The only other character that we meet who shares the same interests and values, is Marlowe (played by John Hurt). Eve had been living with and studying literature with Marlowe in Morocco, before returning to Detroit amid Adam’s depression. Marlowe had used his centuries of life as a writer, but for obvious reasons, he could not afford to get credit for his writing and become famous. Although it was revealed that he had written most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s work. Marlowe, was perhaps the only person aside from Eve, who garnered Adam’s admiration and respect, perhaps even being someone who he looked up to. As the story progressed, it became more and more clear that they were alone in the world, unable to relate to any living soul, and incapable of communicating with the humans that they once were able to relate to.
A poetic meditation on philosophy, love and art, Only Lovers Left Alive is among Jarmusch’s most daring films. Never delving too deep into the bloodsucking side of being a vampire, Jarmusch explores the existential reality of being an immortal misfit separated from everything you had ever come to admire about the world, but continuing forward because of the love you have for your significant other. In his rendition of a vampire-film, he creates his own view of what it would be like to be a vampire in today’s world. Adam and Eve serve as his median for getting his philosophical messages across to us. As practically immortal beings, they have overseen and witnessed centuries of life on Earth, and have had time to ponder and reflect on the evolution of humankind. In the film, they express the human race’s shortcomings at different, vital points throughout history. As invisible witnesses of history and humanity, it seems no one is more informed or qualified to speak on such issues. It seems to me, that Jarmusch is expressing the fact that in the past, humans have refused to change their way of thinking, and in this modern world, riddled with technology and distractions, we have completely lost sight of what’s important and beautiful about life. This is what leads Adam to refer to humans as zombies; disinterested and boring beings who all appear as carbon copies of each other. In an important exchange between the two vampire lovers, regarding Adam’s disdain about humanity and how the “zombies” have ruined the world, he says to Eve:
To which, Eve responds:
Jarmusch is stressing to us, through his art, that we must be ready to change our way of thinking, in order to create a better, more sustainable world going forward. Humanity’s past mistakes are ours to correct, but we need to start now. Additionally, we must return to valuing philosophy, science and true art more passionately as a society in order to accomplish that goal.
Beautifully written and directed, and filled with hypnotic music and camerawork; Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that anybody with the patience for Jarmusch’s famed slow-paced, narrative filmmaking style, should watch. It is a purely cool film that accomplishes its own message: It will change the way you look at life and perhaps yourself, and offer you a look into what it would be like to be immortal. This film comes from Jim Jarmusch’s core as a filmmaker and storyteller.