It’s easy to envy Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the reclusive, exceedingly pale protagonists of acclaimed filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, Only Lovers Left Alive. Granted, the pair is forced to live under a few inconvenient restrictions. They can only leave the confines of their respective sanctuaries at night, and such forays often involve a risky search for unpolluted type O-negative plasma. Still, their (ahem) condition does have its perks. Most conspicuously, they have eternity to broaden their minds, create works of art, and savor new experiences.
Immortality is inherently appealing, of course. No one likes having the Grim Reaper leering over their shoulder. What makes eternal life so precious to Adam and Eve is the possibilities it represents. Undeath means having time enough at last to indulge in all the finer things in life, from Sufi poetry to vintage electric guitars. It represents a chance to become disarmingly accomplished, erudite, and stylish through sheer practice.
Adam and Eve are spouses, although when the film opens they are living in separate hemispheres, for reasons that remain obscure. She has settled into an inviting, richly appointed flat in Tangier, Morocco, surrounding herself with mountains of books. He is secluded away in a decrepit Detroit mansion, where he composes dark, experimental rock on ancient analog equipment. Adam has clearly fared worse during the couple’s time apart. Early in the film, he convinces a guileless human lackey to procure a single wooden bullet, a presumably modern take on the classic stake through the heart. It is not self-loathing that drives Adam’s suicidal impulses, but his contempt for the present state of the world. He’s had enough of humankind’s stupidity, vulgarity, and propensity to corrupt everything it touches. Eve eventually talks Adam down over a video chat, but she thereafter resolves to fly to America to join her husband, lest his disgust at the “zombies” (as he calls humans) push him to the brink once again.
The reunited couple enjoys a short span of marital bliss. They listen to music, dance, read, play chess, make love, and have free-wheeling conversations until dawn. They jump into Adam’s futuristic car and cruise the eerily vacant nocturnal Motor City landscape. Jarmusch presents this period as one of idyllic romance, an undead second honeymoon that blends epicurean and bohemian ideals.
For a time it acts as a balm to Adam’s despair, but like all good things it comes to an end.
The harmony of the couple’s alone time is eventually disrupted by the appearance of fellow bloodsucker Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s “little sister”. Adam visibly bristles at the newcomer’s presence, and not only because she has interrupted the languid perfection of his seclusion with Eve. Uncouth, reckless, and grasping, Ava is a girlish vampire’s skin wrapped around the worst human character traits. She’s a walking borderline personality disorder with fangs, and in short order her rash actions place Adam’s carefully constructed Stateside existence into jeopardy.
This motif—rosy expectations and idealized fantasies running headlong into the messiness of reality—is endlessly repeated in Jarmusch’s filmography. Its appearance in Only Lovers Left Alive is surprising only if one assumes that the Dracula set would be immune to such disillusionment. As ageless supernatural sensualists, vampires are eminently capable of fulfilling their desires while simultaneously nursing a chic world-weariness. This is particularly true of the über-cool rock n’ roll bloodsucker, a notable figure within the subgenre at least since Anne Rice’s novel The Vampire Lestat and Joel Schumacher’s film The Lost Boys. Only Lovers Left Alive functions as an acidic retort to this romanticization of the nosferatu as a Byronic bad boy, suggesting that immortality and flawless fashion sense are not bulwarks against disappointment.
While hardly revelatory, this observation is a vital one within the context of Jarmusch’s previous narrative features. Much of the black humor in the filmmaker’s work stems from the absurdity of a character’s affected pose, naïve hope, or cherished delusion when considered alongside grubby reality. Jarmusch’s breakout 1980 film Stranger Than Paradise is rife with such contrasts, beginning with Hungarian immigrant Willie’s clownish self-conception as a strutting, high-rolling, thoroughly American wise guy, and ending with a Miami-bound road trip that stalls out in a quagmire of confusion, hot tempers, and foolish decisions.
This deflation of expectations is Jarmusch’s stock and trade: for his myopic outsiders and befuddled innocents, simple survival often replaces wish fulfillment as the immediate goal.
Many of Jarmusch’s characters are delayed, waylaid—diverted from their anticipated paths. In Down by Law, Jack, Zack and Roberto are all plucked from the streets of New Orleans and crammed together into a parish prison, cutting short their careers as a pimp, disc jockey, and tourist, respectively. Mystery Train’s Italian widow Luisa must endure an involuntary (and hallucinatory) overnight layover in Memphis, while elsewhere friends Charlie and Will lare shanghaied into an ad hoc liquor store robbery by their volatile pal Johnny. Dead Man’s priggish accountant William Blake arrives at the frontier town of Machine to discover that his new job has been offered to another man. Later, mortally wounded, his half-formed revenge plot peters out, and he finds himself floating to the afterlife in an oceangoing canoe.
Humankind’s best-laid plans almost always go awry in Jarmuschland, leading to frustration, disenchantment, and even mortal peril. In Broken Flowers, Don Johnston’s search for a former lover—and possible son—is stymied by the peculiar reality of his exes’ contemporary lives. His quest eventually ends without resolution, but only after a steel-toed beatdown at the hands of backwoods toughs. In Night on Earth’s Los Angeles sequence, casting agent Victoria is flabbergasted when teen cabby Corky rebuffs a proffered invitation into the glamorous world of Hollywood. One of the more comically painful sequences in Coffee and Cigarettes features an enthusiastic Alfred Molina attempting to ingratiate himself to a plainly disinterested and self-absorbed Steve Coogan.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai finds the titular assassin facing an unexpected witness to a contract killing, the result of another man’s screw-up that nonetheless puts Ghost in the crosshairs of his benefactors. Even Jarmusch’s most deliberately opaque feature, The Limits of Control, pulls a fake-out, albeit on the audience: the Lone Man’s highly anticipated James Bond-style infiltration of an American stronghold happens entirely offscreen.
If Jarmusch’s filmography can be summed up in a single statement, it is probably, “Things don’t turn out the way we expect.”
This is a truism for both the aforementioned characters and for Adam and Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive. Indeed, that film’s final act is concerned principally with the unintended, potentially lethal fallout from Ava’s rashness. In need of a quick exit from Detroit, Adam and Eve take a gamble on returning together to Morocco, only to discover that Eve’s formerly reliable blood source has been compromised. Their hunger mounting, the couple end up wandering the streets of Tangier in a daze, where they are entranced by a crooning vocalist (Lebanese artist Yasmine Hamdan). The haunting melody seems to stir Adam and Eve to action, and they ultimately feed from a passing human couple, giving in to the sort of barbarism that went out of fashion centuries ago. It’s a vulgarity they never foresaw stooping to again. But sometimes even a vampire has to be a little uncool to survive.