Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch and the dark Eden. (Film Review)
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, a film that is so pathologically cool it practically argues for it as a brand of aestheticism, is the current manifestation of Jarmusch’s ongoing relationship between his artistic self (The Artist) and his heritage as an American, which he claims to be made up of a collection of The Other (in the Hertzberg interviews he calls himself a “mongrel”) that Jarmusch appears to vacillate between a love and hate for – as most of us who see ourselves as “non-American” do. If Jarmusch was interested in poetry in his earlier films, he’s moved on to music in Only Lovers Left Alive, as a current manifestation of the problems of language and the difficulty of reconciling our place in the world as defined by our ego, and having that ego challenged through the presence of The Other.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) named after the first couple, and now the last couple, are a pair of that emblematic European invention, Vampire, as appropriated by contemporary American culture in that they are the very manifestation of “cool”. They have been around for a long time, and have developed a certain revulsion for the world they live in, exemplified by the title “Zombies” that they have bestowed upon human creatures. Eve manages this revulsion through isolation, very selective friendships, and art. Adam manages his revulsion by an immersion in the creative act (music) and by hovering perpetually near death, holding suicide close as a choice. By a personal code to live by principles based in aestheticism, they choose to “drink” siphoned blood rather than attack human’s and drain them. Blood affects them in the same way heroine affects musicians, and it is equally as dangerous. Their need for it (“the really good stuff”) is both sustaining and addictive, and if they drink it tainted, it can kill them. Eve, the one continually interacting with the world has relationships with other Vampire’s such as Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) but Adam prefers isolation, leaning on a “zombie” called Ian (Anton Yelchin) to provide him with his passion for analog equipment with which to make his music. Adam used to be a poet, but no longer finds any satisfaction in words, preferring to interact with the world through music.
For Jarmusch’s artist, as personified by Adam, the question is how to assert one’s ego (personal freedom) on the world balanced against a broader view his place in history and society. Artistic expression is a form of freedom, but it is not the whole picture, and mistaking it as such can lead to depressive nihilism and or interpretive solipsism, both of which Adam suffers from. He is saved through his relationship with Eve and her arrival will rescue him from a certain self-imposed death (as opposed to the biblical Eve) but together they will have to interact with the world, which eventually will lead to a demise in the form of drinking tainted blood, starvation or a return to a baser instinct, abandoning artistic based principles for survival. For Eve, eternal life is blessed through knowledge and information. She speed reads, learns languages, uncovers societies secrets, indulges in the sciences and observations about the natural world. Adam refrains from this kind of interaction, and Eve admonishes him for it. Jarmusch makes a criticism of Christian theology here, with his insistence that Adam and Eve bless their eternal life through knowledge, rather than lose it through knowledge as per the biblical narrative. However, Jarmusch still has them entranced with a post-enlightenment rationalism, which is its own form of foundationalism. “It’s not a theory, it is proven” states Adam, when Eve asks him to tell her again about Einsteins quantum theory and its relationship to entanglement theory, which aint necessarily so, as all scientific theories can be “true” but they cannot be “proven true” only “proven false”. Jarmusch’s artist may be post-modern, but they are not anything beyond that.
Crucial to Only Lovers Left Alive is an appreciation for Jarmusch’s own special brand of music, here performed by his band SQURL, which I happen to adore, but if it’s not to your taste, there’s not much relief. There is a wonderfully slowed down and rearranged version of Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ heavy with familiar Jarmusch drone competing for the foreground with Jackson’s absolutely brilliant vocals, muted and yet still carrying that iconic raunch in her voice. The song as performed by Jackson is genius any way you play it but Jarmusch has a fantastic ear for blends and the track works really well as the opener for the film backdrop for a swirling Tilda Swinton as Eve, spliced in with the swirling Tom Hiddleston. Yasmin Hamdan makes a breathtaking appearance with a great performance, as do White Hills. Long time collaborator Jozef van Wissem has his stamp all over the soundtrack, if you’re familiar with his collaborative albums with Jarmusch, you’ll notice it immediately. All together its a wonderful sound track, a typical emblem of the Jarmusch aesthetic of pared down anti-technological sound for the current day, so determined it is almost political.
Only Lovers Left Alive is one of many Jarmusch films made at night, neon moons hovering over Detroit and Tangiers. The decaying Detroit has rarely looked so beautiful, as Jarmusch’s attention to production detail brings a dedication to analog that borders on the fetish it is becoming with the ultra cool set, of which Jarmusch is undeniably a perverse king. For this Jarmusch fan, it was a world I could easily disappear into, but I can appreciate why it might be an equal cause of irritation. As usual, Jarmusch pulls excellent performances from his fine cast, including Tom Hiddleston who is such a fine Adam, I’m glad Michael Fassbender didn’t eventuate, and creates a world one is thrilled to disappear into. Only Lovers Left Alive might be an “easy” film at many levels, but it has enough depth to truly satisfy the thinking Jarmusch fan.