Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive is like a master class in solving quirky filmmaking puzzles. How does a director make a movie in which the characters can survey and comment on the whole of history without having the film succumb to hackneyed tricks like time travel? Jarmusch’s solution: Make the protagonists undead. Make them vampires. But if one of the aims of the film is identification—i.e., the viewer being able to identify with the protagonists and thus take part in their often-plaintive (re)view of history—then how does the director create this effect when his protagonists are the embodiment of horror? By inverting the traditional relationship between the feared vampires and fearful people and having people be zombies to the vampires. These are some of the brilliant moves Jarmusch deploys in his hypnotizing contribution to the filmic version of literature’s sexiest, weirdest, and most blood-thirsty genre.
The film portrays the relationship between Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two vampires who, as far as one can tell, have been alive since time immemorial. Adam, a reclusive musician, who has given compositions to Schubert but now writes sparse, slowly unfolding wordless rock music, lives in the outskirts of contemporary Detroit, in its decaying splendor; and Eve resides in labyrinthine Tangiers. Fittingly, we explore the two cities at night only. The streets of old Tangiers, through which Eve strolls when she goes out to pick up blood pilfered from a local pharmacy, offer a warm, intimate spatial counterpoint to the bleak cityscape of Detroit. The endless rows of derelict factories Adam passes on his way to a nearby hospital where he bribes a doctor for tubes of his preferred type O-negative blood engender a sense of architectural monotony that is almost both entrancing and spiritually punishing: cube after crumbling cube of concrete set against the backdrop of starless nights in which the only illumination comes from the fading streetlamps. By contrast, the worn limestone walls of Tangiers, a womb-like space through which Eve seems to float on her way to score blood from her fellow vampire, the Elizabethan playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), glow in baths of light.
But the intrigue of Adam and Eve runs far deeper than their environs. As soon as we meet them in the opening sequence, a mesmerizing back-and-forth of spiraling overhead shots of each lying in her or his own bed, thousands of miles apart, faces blank with what we later learn is a kind of ecstasy they get from drinking blood, the depth and distinction of each character is evident. It is perhaps most immediately expressed in each character’s hair. Eve’s ghostly blonde is a bodily sign of her lightness and grace, qualities that she will unwaveringly express throughout the film in response to Adam’s bouts of black-haired nihilism. It is hard to imagine an actress more fitting for this role than Swinton. Who else could so convincingly channel warmth and integrity into the subjectivity of vampire that it becomes possible to see her as a life-affirming vampire? Who else could endow that oxymoron with meaning? During the first half of the film, when Adam and Eve are reunited after she flies to Detroit to cheer him up, Eve pushes back against Adam’s rashes of depression, saying that he always has the convenience of the zombies to blame for his blue periods.
One of the features of the world of the film is that the vampires are never referred to as such. In fact, the word vampire is never used. Instead, the vampires call humans zombies. We needn’t speak of mass culture’s preoccupation with the so-called zombie apocalypse, but the indelible link between zombies and consumerism plays an important role in Jarmusch’s film. The result of Jarmusch’s rhetorical scramble, in which the vampires are the nameless yet relatable ones and people are zombies, is not only that we come to identify with the vampires but also that we begin to see zombie consumerism as an agent of contamination of which Adam and Eve must be careful when sourcing blood. If vampires are like parasites that prey off the blood of humans, then this film upsets that relationship to interesting ends. When Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes to visit, essentially turning up on their front door like the younger sister from so many rom-coms who, after getting into trouble living on her own, comes back to her older sister for grounding, Eve asks Ava whether she has been taking care of her nutrition because the blood they must drink is increasingly contaminated. Eve’s question doesn’t sound too far off from something a parent would ask a sick child, and Swinton’s delivery is pitch-perfect while conveying that familial care and concern. Thus the film establishes a strange sort of ambivalence in which the vampires are on the whole more human—insofar as being human entails feeling, caring, and self-understanding—than humans even aspire to be. “Have the water wars started yet?” Adam and Eve ask each other as the film draws to a close.
The array of amazing details, both subtle and structural, in Only Lovers Left Alive expands the more time one spends with the film. The more you unfold it, the more secrets it reveals. Monographs could be written about the ways in which it dismantles the barriers between high and low culture, engages with the Orientalist roots of the broader gothic genre to which the vampire subgenre belongs, fluidly graphs the fear-logic of zombie movies back onto us, blurs the traditional roles of humans and vampires, analogizes the vampire’s desperate search for blood to an epidemic involving blood, as all things ultimately do, that was beginning to ravage the nation in 2013, the opioid crisis, and studies the workings (or failings) of our most precious instrument, the heart; but perhaps the most enthralling aspect of the film is the way in which it welcomes us into the impossible. By helping us connect with Adam and Eve and offering us, through their eyes, access to a perspective of time that encompasses all time, Jarmusch invites us into a grander story, one that creeps towards the universal. If Adam and Eve are emissaries of the past, they are also prophet of the future. “This place will rise again,” Adam says of the wreck that is Detroit. “There’s water here.” To keep them undead long enough to see it, we might just want to offer Adam and Eve our blood.