The Twilight films, in their depiction of untroubled romanticism, finished with a large question mark hanging over them, one that the first film’s poster referred to without addressing – “When you can live forever, what do you live for?” Jim Jarmusch, despite giving assurances in the March issue of “Sight and Sound” that he has not seen the Twilight films (or any vampire film and TV series more recent than Tomas Alfredson’s turgid Let The Right One In), sets out to look at this question in more detail.
Adam and Eve (played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) – named more in reference to the length of time that they have been on the planet rather than for any religious significance – are two vampires stuck in the modern world. Adam is a Romantic and a moody rocker, disillusioned with life and with the humans he is surrounded by (he calls them ‘zombies’), and considering suicide. Eve is older, much older, and has a more Classical bent, still boundlessly curious and excited by the world and content with the awareness of the circularity of life, having an apocalyptic relish for the coming fall of the West. Both are fairly reclusive and, despite Adam living in Detroit and Eve living in Tangiers, are very much in love.
The film is primarily about the wealth of knowledge and interest that the world has for people and, in this way, it is disarmingly optimistic. Eve believes that the humans, particularly the West, will soon lose their battle against the Earth and that some kind of apocalyptic reversal is coming, though having seen all sorts of plagues and floods (as well as the Inquisition) she doesn’t seem particularly bothered. However, she is boundless excited about being alive. When she packs for a trip abroad, she fills her suitcase with her favourite books – two books that are easily discernible are Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”, showing her ability to still be inspired. Adam, meanwhile, is depressive and contradictory and allows himself to get bored. He pretends that he has no heroes, although he has a wall covered with framed photographs of people who could only be heroes – Kafka, Proust, William Burroughs, Neil Young and Buster Keaton among them. Adam’s centuries-old ennui is made the butt of a few jokes, the kind that may bring only a murmur of appreciation from some of the audience but are welcome nonetheless. However, when Eve discovers his plans for suicide via a specially designed wooden bullet, she is outraged. In one great scene, she tells Adam about what makes her want to keep living, before putting on a record to which they both dance, and not at all like amateurs. The heart of the film is in this scene, creating a sense that curiosity and the joy of discovery is where the value and meaning of life lies – ultimately the film is about being glad to be alive.
The film has an infectious love of culture and science and, particularly, music and many of the film’s best scenes are simply moments revelling in these simple pleasures. Adam and Eve’s breadth of reference is not the product of snobbery, as Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) mistakenly claims, but the entirely enviable product of time well spent. The appearance of Ava midway through the film gives a sense of urgency and heightens the plot in a way that was not entirely necessary, since the film was enough fun when Adam and Eve were merely hanging out.
In a timely fashion, the film is able to create a sense of the destruction and desolation of the earth by the zombies. The film shows Detroit as an empty wasteland, full of cavernous abandoned buildings, the real world equivalent to the Gothic castles of tradition but equally a sign of the zombies’ destruction and waste. Despite their obvious political resonance, these sequences do not feel as heavy-handed as they may seem since any ancient vampire with an ounce of nostalgia would be angered by a huge music hall's relatively immediate transformation into a car park. Adam frequently derides the zombies’ ability to ignore or undo their own great achievements such as Detroit’s auto industry or the works of Nikola Tesla, thanks to whose work Adam has found the means to develop a machine that creates clean energy and which he is too bitter to share with the rest of humanity. However, Only Lovers Left Alive is an optimistic film, and where Detroit may represent the decline of American industry – though the music still seems to be pretty vibrant – and of the West in general, Tangiers represents a kind of hope. Though similarly crumbling and full of vice but nonetheless multicultural and very much alive, Tangiers seems to suggest that the zombies can still surprise – especially towards the end when Adam is moved by a performance by Lebanese singer Yasmin Hamdan.
Jim Jarmusch has not always been the easiest filmmaker to like – the inclusion of Neil Young on Adam’s wall of heroes can only bring back memories of the awful Year of the Horse. With Only Lovers Left Alive, he has made a film that is unexpectedly romantic, funny and excited by life. It has an infectious love of music – the music choices feel slightly dated but totally assured – and for writing. Optimistically, it suggests that love and culture can make life worth living and that time should be spent wisely lest any of it be missed. Only Lovers Left Alive does not have a highly original message, but it is one worth transmitting and if the method of transmission is as pleasing and imaginative as this, why complain?