The world, in the grand scheme of things, can easily be seen by pessimists as continuously on the brink of extinction. The death of the world around us is seemingly promised daily, and we’re given new fears to drive us into submission day by day. Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive tells the story of two impossibly-old vampire lovers, Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) as they live in a world that fails to understand the grander scheme of its existence and the futility of common practice whilst portraying one of the truest representations of love I’ve ever seen on screen.
Living alone in a desolate Detroit Victorian house, Hiddleston’s Adam is a progressive successful musician with an intense mortality complex despite his immortality. Consistently flirting with the idea of suicide, even to the point of getting his zombie (human) contact Ian (Anton Yelchin) to obtain a wooden bullet for him, the dark themes and ideology behind his music reflect his pessimism towards the state of humanity. One that’s slowly sucking the reason out of existence and tormenting him the only way a misunderstood artist could. Swinton’s Eve however resides across the globe in Tangier, surrounded by piles of literature and basking in the glow of the world around her. The two are polar opposites that together craft a perfect union of pure spirits, at the same time rare, sensitive and ever so delicate.
It’s a testament to the performances how much can be gauged from Only Lovers Left Alive. Adam, described by Jarmusch as “Hamlet as played by Syd Barrett”, is a contemporary rockstar at odds with the world around him, with the continued romanticism of a 17th century poet when he was turned into a vampire. Eve is at one with nature, and takes great joy in learning of the society around her. It’s interesting to note that despite Adam’s success as an experimental melancholic musician and Eve’s seemingly endless appreciation of nature, she still seems reserved when listening to her husband’s music. Adam is unlike anyone she’s ever met and the scope of his work potentially frightens her because of its darker themes and outlook. He sees his immortality as a curse thanks to the depressive rockstar life he’s chosen, and holds contempt for the humans around him who take great joy in the act of destruction. Eve operates on another plain of existence, finding the creatures fascinating and adoring their penchant for poetry and literature.
The film’s laid back pacing and minimal plot allows us to simply spend time in the company of the lovers. Eve travels to Detroit to be with her mournful love, and the two fit in perfectly among the rotting natural decay of the city’s forgotten architecture. They embellish culture. Breathe it. Adam’s home is a cacophony of recording equipment, instruments and artwork that makes creativity sexy, and it’s a wonder why no one had thought to portray vampires as such creatures before. They’re typically portrayed as beasts compared to humans, but Only Lovers Left Alive challenges that and asks whether they’re in fact something more.
Of course, the film uses Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) to usher in the juxtaposition between the two protagonists and their reputation. Ava is an old school vampire, flirtatious and eccentric, destined to live in the moment to the point where even her presence puts Adam on edge. The complacency that the two have to simply live in the shadows, unnoticed is immediately torn apart by her actions as she drinks Ian and forces them to escape the artistic comfort Adam has become accustomed to. Eve shows a surface level of maturity that is absent from the opinionated Adam, the one who resists the act of simply wallowing in self-pity when things become hard. At the same time though she continues to understand the important of artistic creation to Adam, and upon arriving in Tangier she goes out to retrieve him a new instrument to get to grips with. It’s this understanding between the two of them that allows them to craft a perfect unionship. They don’t need to be together in order to stay in love, but the fact that they want to means more than anything.
Every other character in the film is lonely and lacks purpose. John Hurt’s elderly Christopher Marlowe lives in the shadow of his earlier anonymous works and, without love, feels oddly aimless. Ava’s immaturity and flippancy towards her vampire nature prevents her from becoming close to anyone else, and thus she’s cast out for destroying the happiness of others. Ian’s idolisation of Adam is his ultimate downfall, and the strive to be a part of his work has left him without love and he ultimately dies unfulfilled.
“You have to be in love, you have to be a lover in order to survive and it’s only through other lovers that Adam and Eve are able to carry on living”. – Tilda Swinton on the film.
Only Lovers Left Alive is not a traditional love story by any means, it’s a continuation-of-love story. A reminder of the imperfections within it, and how if it’s found it can transcend any distance and any adversity. Not only that, but the love of being and finding joy in that which surrounds you. Adam reminds Eve to think of the subtext of the work she reads, whilst she offers up the vocal and emotional support he need to not slip into the melancholic abyss so many artists succumb to. They are the embodiment of Einstein’s theory of entanglement, his “spooky action at a distance”.
“When you separate an entwined particle and move both parts away from the other, even at opposite ends of the universe, if you alter or affect one…the other will be identically altered or affected” – Adam.