Only Lovers Left Alive: Ennui and Immortality

ImageNumerous critics have hailed Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, as an heir to Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance. No wonder it is my favorite movie of the year, since Performance is my favorite film of the 60s. Inhabited by Jarmuch’s sensibility and pacing, however, this film moves darkly into humor as it progresses. And while Performance’s Turner and Pherber seem to live as vampires, they are not, unlike the central characters of Only Lovers Left Alive, Adam and Eve, who are. Performance’s protagonists find enlightenment with amanita muscaria, while Adam and Eve merely admire it in their garden, for they consume nothing but blood—which is their drug. They do not seek enlightenment for they are ancient; their quest is to embrace immortality, which unfortunately breeds entropy.

Only Lovers Left Alive contains many familiar tropes about vampires as beautiful, poetic entities who know more than we do, and who move through the night comparing cultures and centuries. But it also proposes our civilization is a postmodern wasteland poisoning itself with pollution and disease. At its heart, the film regards ennui and creativity. It is also a film about collectors—and heaven knows if you had been alive for four centuries, you might want to collect one thing or another.ImageImageThe chic, bohemian couple collects hardbound books in all languages and from all cultures, vinyl, and musical instruments. Adam is a beautiful, moody, and Byronic musician, while Eve seems to appreciate every moment of her odd, intellectual existence. Adam fulminates in a decomposing Detroit, while Eve flourishes in the ancient city of Tangier, closer to the cradle of civilization: the beginning of society, not its conclusion. Yet, both environments share the same cryptic coloration at night and afford Jarmusch a visual segue between countries when the couple converges. Detroit’s brown block factories in the yellow glow of streetlights become the rectangular façade of the late night, artificially lit drive into Tangier.

            Yes, they are vampires, but this seems a plot point and not the point of Jarmusch’s slowly paced, sensual film. Night walks and night drives take the viewer into a magical realm of disuse and decay. In Detroit, the backdrop is a landscape of striking and forsaken structures such as an abandoned Packard factory and the Michigan Theater, a Renaissance Revival performance space built in 1926 and turned into a car park in the mid-70s, with its rococo ceiling and projection booth intact. Compared to Detroit’s derelict grandeur, Tangier is ancient, warmer, bleached, and unadorned. The dusty, desert town is pale and blonde like Eve, while the dark space of a ruined Victorian houses Adam’s mess of dated recording equipment and instruments. Like Performance’s Turner, he creates his melodic wail with a mid-century mixing board and reel to reel. When Eve calls, he has to cobble together what looks like an 80s phone with a 50s television to see her. Eve merely uses her iPhone. Unlike Adam, who seems to live for each new vintage guitar he purchases, Eve is less bogged down with the world in her pocket.

            Much like Turner in Performance, creative Adam is lost without his partner, who is the one in control. Adam is the feminized half of the couple and must be rescued by Eve’s powerful will and joy of life. In one of the most luminous scenes of the film, Eve counters Adam’s suicidal ideation by making him dance to a Denice LaSalle 45. And whether it is the spell of her physical presence or her logic, he begins to long once again for longevity. Not only does the film glorify rock and roll and soul music captured on vinyl, and the lush body of a Gibson or Silvertone, it also embraces the literary. We are told that Adam has partied with the Romantic poets, but Eve’s closest friend in Morocco is the undead Christopher Marlowe, who declares himself the author of Shakespeare’s work. “I wish I had known Adam before I created Hamlet,” he opines. However if “brevity is the soul of wit”, then perhaps the flight without his stash of tapes and instruments, is part and parcel of Adam’s revival. And on the other side of the ocean, a taste of mortality arouses his need to be immortal.Image

           In Performance, Mick Jagger’s Turner must pass through death to become alive, but in Only Lovers Left Alive, all Adam must do is want to live. In each narrative, strong female protagonists never waver, leading their partners toward some greater understanding of existence. Yet ultimately, Jarmucsh’s film is a vehicle of style and dark humor, which encodes a deeper question. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfect as his undead lovers who wear their hearts on their sleeves and negotiate a liminal space between the ancient and the contemporary. But the oldest questions of existence never waver. And if you had to live for a thousand years, what would you live for… knowledge, music, forbidden pleasure, treasure, love? In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch answers this question.Image

2 Comments on “Only Lovers Left Alive: Ennui and Immortality”

  1. Alice says:

    Performance is one of my favorite movies and soundtracks of all time. I want to see this!

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