Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who attract a lot of critical attention despite few critics being fans of their work. You can always identify these directors from the way that reviews of their work often include sentences like ‘a return to form’ or ‘his best film since x’ where x stands for some previously well-received but not necessarily successful film.
Exemplified by the likes of Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Spike Lee, this type of director invariably has a strong and immediately identifiable vision that seldom seems to translate into great films. We all know what we think of when we talk about the films of Woody Allen and Tim Burton but pointing to a really good Woody Allen or Tim Burton film is quite a lot harder than you’d think given the way that these directors have been allowed to pursue and perfect their cinematic visions. Critics like the idea of this type of director as perfecting a vision is what directors are supposed to do and yet the ability to articulate and explore a personal vision is no guarantee that you will produce interesting films. Some people just have boring visions.
Jarmusch’s vision is as singular as it is identifiable in that many of his films feel like attempts to produce American genre film using the themes and techniques of European art house. For example, 1995’s Dead Man is an ironic deconstruction of the western that dwells on feelings of cultural isolation while the more recent The Limits of Control strips the espionage thriller down to its component parts resulting in a film about beautifully-dressed people wandering around exotic locations in response to some inarticulate conspiracy. Only Lovers Left Alive is neither as minimalist as Limits of Control nor as tongue-in-cheek as Dead Man but it is excellent and precisely what you would expect from a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie.
The vampire is one of those tropes that feels completely burned out and overly familiar until someone breaks cover and does something that reminds you of its allegorical versatility. The Twilight franchise may take its cues from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and use vampires to represent the power that male sexuality can have over heterosexual women but look a little bit further afield and you can find them representing the intimidating otherness of adult sexuality in Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, the atavistic savagery that civilisation keeps under control in David Slade’s 30 Days of Night, drug addiction and sin in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction and the stress that mental illness can place on relationships in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. For his part, Jarmusch seems most interested in immortality and the perspective this would grant you on the rise and fall of human cultures.
The film is split between two wonderfully cinematic settings: The darkened back-streets of Tangier and the abandoned residential streets of Detroit.
Jarmusch shoots Tangier in much the same way he shot Madrid in The Limits of Control; always a few steps behind his character, he allows the camera to drink in the atmosphere of late-night bars, shadowy courtyards and shuttered windows. The city is home to Eve (Tilda Swinton), a centuries-old vampire who passes her days speed-reading books that are stacked shoulder-high all over the floor of her wonderfully decadent home.
Very reminiscent of the section from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where the once-beautiful Sebastian Flyte is drinking himself to death in Morocco, Eve’s life conveys an image of blissful but ultimately unsustainable detachment. Eve may live in a beautiful city that buzzes with music and possibility but she would rather stay home and experience life vicariously through books of poetry. This sense of stagnation is amplified when Eve heads out to get some blood from her long-time friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, faked his own death and spent centuries hiding away from the rest of the world. Later in the film, we see Marlowe’s home and it is filled with unpublished manuscripts but when Eve tries to convince Marlowe to publish something he is utterly horrified at the thought.
From there, the film moves to Detroit where Eve’s husband, a vampiric musician by the name of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is living in a derelict mansion where he collects antique electric guitars, fiddles with Tesla-inspired gadgets and records experimental music that he steadfastly refuses to share with anyone. The walls of his bedroom are filled with images of the human musicians he has inspired and worked with over the years but, like Marlowe, he seems to have reached a psychological impasse wherein he is too mistrustful of humans (who are referred to as ‘zombies’ throughout the film) to engage them in any meaningful way.
Adam’s perspective on human culture is really the film’s stand-out idea. As someone who has been around for centuries and seen human culture go left when it could have gone right, Adam has become obsessed with counterfactuals. Worlds that could have been but weren’t seem to loom so large in Adam’s mind that they blind him to the present we have and the futures we continue to create. The absurdity of Adam’s position is perfectly captured in a scene where Eve tries to talk to him using the camera on her phone and he deploys an impressive but ridiculous collection of 1970s objects rigged together to replicate the functionality of a phone you could buy in a high street shop. Sensing that Adam’s isolation is turning to depression, Eve seeks him out and the pair chat about the future in this amazingly dispassionate way that includes a lovely little speech about how Detroit will bloom when the cities of the South start to burn.
Also impressive is the bloodless purity of Adam and Eve’s relationship. Centuries old and only able to experience physical pleasure through the act of imbibing O-negative blood from sherry glasses, Adam and Eve display a love that is as profound as it is devoid of physical passion. These aren’t people who stay together because they can’t keep their hands off each other, they stay together because literally no one on Earth understands them as well as the other and with that understanding comes the ability to step outside of oneself and re-assess. Eve travelled to Detroit in order to ‘save’ Adam but their conversations make it clear that Adam gives as good as he gets and the change that comes from Eve’s intervention is as present in her mind as it is in Adam’s.
The need for real change presents itself when Eve’s sister Eva (Mia Wasikowska) unexpectedly turns up at Adam’s door. Despite being at least a century old, Eva lives among humans and has internalised many of their neuroses: Needy, selfish and unthinkingly destructive, she forces Adam and Eve out into the world by destroying Adam’s home and making it impossible for him to continue his exile.
Forced to flee to Eve’s home in Tangier, the pair discover that Marlowe is mortally ill and so are forced to think about how they are going to live together and survive. Wandering the streets in a daze, the pair part company when Eve heads off to find Adam a musical instrument that will help him to start rebuilding the collection he left behind in Detroit. However, by the time she returns with the object, Adam has caught sight of a local singer who seems to inspire him in the way that humans used to inspire him in years gone by. Eve comments that she’ll be a star, Adam responds by saying that she’s far too good for that. With nothing to lose and their old lives effectively destroyed, Adam and Eve hit upon the idea of turning the singer and her boyfriend. No longer content to drink blood purchased through intermediaries, they bare their fangs and pounce on what seems a lot like the future.
Though somewhat out of character, this ending does shine an interesting light on the power and privilege underpinning the vampiric lifestyle. As unpleasant and depressing as the vampires’ self-imposed exiles may be, the only reason they are able to turn their noses up at society is that they have the power and resources to keep themselves isolated from the world. Whenever they need books, guitars or blood, they reach into their pockets and pull out fistfuls of cash. People without money and power do not have the luxury to turn their noses up at society… they are forced to engage with the culture they have even when it is not to their personal taste.
Adam and Eve may ‘cure’ themselves of their isolationist tendencies at the end of the film but this change is forced upon them by a series of unfortunate events that deplete their reserves of power and privilege. Unable to rely on Marlowe for a supply of blood, the Vampires are forced to feed on humans. Unable to retreat into his collection of instruments and recordings, Adam is forced to go into a club and listen to people making something new.
This is a film about social class in that Jarmusch is using vampirism to explore what it means to be part of the 1% of humanity that are so wealthy and powerful that their lives seem completely different to those of the remaining 99%. Adam and Eve are international elites and the embodiment of rootless capital, they move from city to city on a whim and they only engage with normal humans when their existing reserves of wealth and power are disrupted. Desperate for new blood and fresh sources of power, the couple latch onto a pair of talented humans and begin to drain them. The act of turning these young humans will elevate them to the 1% but it will also give them the freedom to isolate themselves from the world and use their power for selfish ends.
Floating over the entire film is a feeling of wasted potential. Adam moans about all the geniuses that humanity failed to appreciate but he completely glosses over the fact that he is choosing to withhold his own genius from a culture in desperate need of renewal. Would rock music benefit from the discovery of genius experimental pieces that would inspire and enrapture? Of course! Would world literature benefit from the discovery of dozens of plays written to the standard of Marlowe and Shakespeare? Of course! The real tragedy, the film seems to suggest, is not that a 1% exists but that these people would rather protect themselves from the world than work to improve it.
I wonder if Allen, Burton and Lee are good comparisons, as they work much deeper in the Hollywood system than Jarmusch. Perhaps Hal Hartley or John Sayles are more relevant. Certainly critics’ love for Hartley’s films, like Jarmusch’s, baffles me. Sayles (no relation, incidentally), on the other hand, is a much, much better director.
I really disliked this film, I have to say. I like your 1% analysis, but if intentional I think it was lost on the bourgey NYC audience I saw it with, who laughed self-satisfyingly at all the literary and musical references. Unfortunately I think they were fetishising vampires in exactly the same way teen audiences were a few years back – it was ‘we’re the aloof, smart kids at school, special snowflakes’ time all over again. It was more aspirational/romantic than it was critical for them.
And don’t even get me started on the continued whitening of Detroit in US pop culture…
Ian — I think critics are cooler on Jarmusch than you seem to suggest. Almost all the reviews I looked at were of the ‘this is better than that last thing he made’ and if you look at the last thing he made, the critics said almost exactly the same thing :-)
I’ve not seen much Hartley or Sayles so I can’t really comment but I like Jarmusch… I just wouldn’t go to my grave for him :-)
Tim — Funnily enough, I thought of you when watching the bits about Detroit as I know that you’ve visited a few times since moving over the pond.
This definitely isn’t a film that respects black Detroit. I don’t think it shows any black people living in Detroit at all and the local music scene it acknowledges is 100% white. I get the impression that Detroit does have a pretty good rock scene at the moment but I am sensitive to the racial dimension you touch on and I agree that the film’s depiction of Detroit is not ‘un-problematic’ especially seeing as the Adam character travels to Tangier and has no problem engaging with the local and non-white music scene there.
I also think you’re right that it’s easy to watch the film and just fall in love with the beautiful British vampires and their rootlessly bourgeois existence… But I think the film is self-aware and not uncritical in its depiction of that lifestyle.
Re Detroit, have you seen It Follows? The whitening of Detroit there is absolutely intentional, and a fairly subtle comment on racial tensions in the city.
Otherwise, I saved this review as I thought it interesting, but I’m not sure I can bear to watch etiolated bourgois vampires. That said, I did finally watch Daughters of Darkness yesterday, which is strange and rather wonderful in a somewhat exploitative way…
Yes… I liked It Follows quite a bit. Haven’t seen Daughters of Darkness though.
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