Vampires have undergone a series of dramatic transformations since first lurking out of the dark and onto the silver screen. The demonic figure of Nosferatu returned after dark as Bela Lugosi’s iconic carnivore in the 1930s, the tongue-(and fang)-in-cheek “Blacula” emerged in the 1970s, before arriving at the sparkling, sexualised heart throbs of the Twilight saga in the 2000s, which most vampire lovers wished would have a stake driven through its heart. Jim Jarmusch, in his usual genre-bending style, offers a vision of vampires that embraces the origins but incorporates a healthy dose of scepticism to create the rock and roll vampire.
The eponymous lovers of the title, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), are centuries old paramours forced to meet as Adam once again slips into his melancholia. Tension rises and their lives spiral further out of control as Eve’s younger bratty sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes to stay. John Hurt also appears as the playwright Christopher Marlowe in some of the best comical sequences. One aspect that makes Only Lovers Left Alive such an enjoyable experience is Jarmusch’s interaction with the vampire folklore whilst doing away with the sillier caricatures and stereotypes.
Jarmusch reinvents Adam and Eve as rockstar junkies, falling into a wide-eyed, grinning moment of ecstasy when drinking blood, sleeping all day in bed, slipping easily into the music scene while dressed in black and wearing sunglasses. The coffins and fear of garlic are done away with in favour of a palpable fear of drinking contaminated blood. Most of all the ideas and rules of vampires are slowly released and applied for comical or shocking effect. Jarmusch leads the audience blind and stumbling around in his after dark world, left to draw their own conclusions about what is important, all the while focusing in on the characters, not what vampires are capable of.
Perhaps most alluring of all is Adam’s crushing depression inherently caused by the “zombies”, his term for humans, and Adam’s universal knowledge of everything from mathematics to Einstein’s entanglement theory, perfectly offset by his counterpart Eve. Instead of demonising or romanticising the vampire life, which is never once named, Jarmusch instead shows us the trials and pains of eternal life and being awakened to the degradation of the world, displayed through the many night drives of Detroit. Adam’s subjection to mankind’s follies of environmental and historical insensitivity is brilliantly counteracted by Eve’s faith in and love for Adam. The relationship between the two is not necessarily sexual but sincere and loving, which makes the duo far more human than any living, breathing human character. The film works best, not when the two drink blood or decide how to dispose of a body, but in sitting and reflecting on life through the eyes of an immortal.
This is Jarmusch at his best; understanding conventions and reinventing them as we have seen him successfully do with his psychedelic western Dead Man (1995), his hip-hop gangster film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and nourish rom-com Broken Flowers (2005). In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s strong visual direction is most refined in the brooding and dark corners of Detroit and Tangier whilst his unique brand of black comedy has never been so witty or so strong. The director leads us through a tandem of ups and downs and reflections and moments of sweetness arrive just in time to replace the ruminating threat. The story never stagnates.
With an excellent cast that engage and bring to life a powerful script, Jarmusch works his masterful magic once again. Only Lovers Left Alive offers a unique experience from the convention-breaking master’s quirky mind that both embraces the vampire and shuns what it has become, rejuvenating a decrepit formula.