It seems to be of little concern to Jim Jarmusch, the common journalistic shorthand that labels him as some “high priest of hip.” He seems actively to be courting the title in fact, with Only Lovers Left Alive, the most languorously cool movie of his career (amidst stiff competition). It is a love story, intrinsic to which is the fact that Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are vampires (their third wedding was 1868) whose relationship has strengthened and deepened to a near-mystical level over the years; as has their knowledge and appreciation of science, nature, and cultural figures and artifacts, allowing for the fetishisation of all kinds of musical instruments and equipment, books and literary figures: an impossible level of hipness attainable only via several times a normal human lifespan. And of course they dress to kill, and wear sunglasses at night.
As the opening sequence demonstrates to the accompaniment of a needle dropping on a scratchy (and rare) 45, their existence is zonked-out placid, she in unmatched boho-chic in Tangiers, he in a shadowy, crumbling, dark-wood mansion in an abandoned part of Detroit, recording his music amidst towers of vintage audio gear. Eve is several thousand years old, Adam more like 500, but by this time both are above the old-fashioned traditions of beastly behaviour, instead sourcing uncontaminated blood from doctors and labs, and in the case of Adam, shunning almost all contact with the human world (“fucking zombies” he likes to spit).
Although living half a world apart at the start – proportionate to their hundreds of years together, something like a weekend break – Eve travels to Adam to console his world-weariness. They may both be vampires, strongly and believably in love, but they are strikingly dissimilar, and not simply due to their age. To help us get the idea, she dresses most frequently in white, he almost exclusively in black. She upbraids him gently for his self-obsession, as a waste of time which could be spent living, enjoying the world, nature, dancing. He, on the other hand, is like “Hamlet played by Syd Barrett” (Jarmusch). It is hardly Hiddleston’s fault, therefore, if his character feels both like a box-checking archetype of hipsterism, and a little second-hand (right down to his photo wall of heroes, from Poe and Kafka, to Buster Keaton and Joe Strummer, to the slightly dubious inclusion – pace Jarmusch’s filmography – inclusion of Neil Young).
Hiddleston plays well with Swinton (although certain Americanisms in the script sit ill on his English tongue). They do make a beautiful couple, believably at ease with one another, and actually conversing as a long-term couple might, but the onus of bringing warmth and beauty to the love relationship thankfully falls to Swinton, and the movie would be a far less attractive proposition without her. It is all too easy to forget that beneath the Bowie-alien alabaster appearance she can command a beautiful sense of openness and wonder, enthusiasm and love, conjuring a real deep-rooted bond with her dear friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), speed-reading her beloved books with almost ecstatic excitement, and rendering believable the central, enduring relationship.
Adam denies his heroes, the fear and egotism of the artist; Eve never would, for she is ready to appreciate all. Thus when he drives her past Jack White’s childhood home, her appreciation is one of affection rather than the reverence of Adam’s photo wall. Her outlook is largely one of wonder; his one of cynicism, and disgust at those who lack his refined taste (and at those who thwarted his scientific heroes from Gallileo to Tesla).
There is of course a third approach to these relationships with culture and beauty, and that’s not to give two hoots. This is embodied by Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) who turns up halfway through to cause a bit of chaos. She is much younger, and wilder, and hails from LA (“zombie central”, as Adam describes it). Wasikowska is delightfully willful and bratty (although like Adam, to quite a degree predictable – why on earth would the elder couple leave her alone with an obvious victim they’d prefer to keep around?) and departs calling Adam and Eve a pair of “condescending snobs.”
What she refers to is their seclusion from the human world, with the appearance of being above such things, rather than doing so for their own self-preservation – something Ava too might learn with age – but it holds also for the esoteric rarefaction of their existence, which Jarmusch packs to overflowing with empty cultural references. Even those already mentioned feel excessive, denied individual significance in and of themselves in the context of the film, and rarely with any specific relevance: the fact that they travel with passports in the names of Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan, for example, provides no additional subtext – it’s a throwaway gag.
The most egregious example of this is the character of Marlowe who as a cultural figure, beyond just being a dear friend of Eve’s, adds nothing to the film except a chance for Jarmusch to state bluntly his anti-Stratfordian views, with no need for supporting argument. This more or less represents the film’s superficial hipness to a tee, references as badges of cool, of rebelliousness, of knowledge, without emotional import, significance, or even appreciation as endless nods are made. By this time, one expects little profundity from Jarmusch, particularly after the damp squibs of his last two pictures (Broken Flowers and Limits of Control) but this film takes his mode of hang-out cool to a whole new level. His saving grace is usually his deadpan humour, on display in fits and starts here, not least when following a startlingly swift acid bath Eve blinks out “well that certainly was visual.”
This is a decent summation of the film. It looks fantastic, from her yak-hair wig to his glorious lute, and the vampire’s leather gloves that the filmmakers include to invent their own bit of vampire mythology (unexplained, but basically as some form of protection when they are outside their home turf). One cannot fault its cool, and it looks and sounds terrific. Director of Photography Yorick Le Saux (veteran of several Ozon films) shoots a lovely shadowy nighttime world; production and costume designers Marco Bittner Rosser (V for Vendetta, Hellboy, Inglourious Basterds) and Bina Daigelier (Che, The Limits of Control) have really gone to town, from the (slightly too-precious) goblets from which the vampires drink their blood, to Hurts (500-year-old!) waistcoat; and Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL with lutist Jozef Van Wissen provide the perfect, narcotic score, drenched in feedback.
But in the service of what? The film raises all sorts of intriguing questions and trains of thought – how the human race has degraded itself and the planet; vampirism as drug addition; how one could possibly keep oneself sane living for thousands of years, or remain engaged as a couple for that long; the importance of authorship versus the existence of the actual work itself; even artistic endeavour as as a kind of vampirism on one’s predecessors – yet never worries at them. Adam and Eve’s frequent talk of Einstein’s spooky-at-a-distance theory, as though they are the separated particles operating on one another, feels like an easy and not-quite-justified shorthand; and even the title is poetically opaque to the point of meaninglessness. Other commentators have described the vampire state on display here as a metaphor for hipsterism, an eternal seen-it-all-before / I-have-a-better-record-collection-than-you ennui, and in Adam’s case this certainly holds. I realised as I watched that as a 15-year-old, say, I’d have found this just about the coolest thing ever. At some years’ distance, however, the relentless and superficial litany of reference palls, however sincere and celebratory; surface dominates at the expense of substance. The gloves were added not least because they look cool, “a very important criteria [sic],” Jarmusch admits. At some point the urge to be cool begins to undermine its very self.