I feel like Jim Jarmusch spends a lot of time thinking about guitars.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) is a send-up to the relics: old guitars, old methods, old people. There is a circular nature to everything, like a record left to repeat over and over again, and you’re left with the sense, like Eve says, that “this has already happened before”.
The opening shot spins around and around (like a record baby) as jarring post-rock blares over the two main characters, the musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston), and his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton). This is perhaps what drives the melancholy that haunts Adam, apart from his disgust with the ‘zombies’ (humans); what else might depress someone who has been alive for so long he’s seen it all, done it all, heard it all? When there is nothing new in a world that seems to do nothing but repeat itself, what is a vampire to do?
Adam has the studio of someone who’s experimented with every sound possible; his house is packed with amps, stereos, musical equipment, and instruments. When he sends Ian away after he offers to check out a warehouse sale, it is not because he already has them, but because he knows he won’t be around to use them. He, unlike Eve, doesn’t lock his door, because he has nothing he thinks he would mind losing.
The two visit their separate dealers; Eve, to an old friend and supplier, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), and Adam to a blood pathologist in Detroit.
Eve, contrarily, is optimistic; away in Tangiers, she visits Marlowe and teases at dropping a hint or two that he, in fact, is the author of Shakespeare’s plays. She is interested in games, in a little fun, in the possibility of something new, even if it doesn’t work out. Where Adam is cold, she is warm; when he mopes, she celebrates.
After a terse video call, she decides to check in on her husband, and as the two are on the way to rediscovering the little beauties in life that comprise a balanced sum, a wrench is thrown into the works in the form of Eve’s little ‘sister’, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Although it is clear there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, we are left in the dark as to what exactly happened between them in Paris 87 years ago, but it is enough to make Adam trepidatious about welcoming her into his home. Ava appears to be much younger physically and mentally, maintaining a jet-setting lifestyle and bailing on it when it becomes inconvenient or unsustainable; she pouts at the thought of not being shown where they keep the O-negative – although she drinks quite a lot of it -, barges into Eve and Adam’s room like a kid on Christmas, and seems to go into adventures head-first, without consideration, just as charming as she is selfish, something that ultimately costs Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s only connection with the world at large, his life.
The world of Adam and Eve is, for the most part, solitary. The film stretches for every inch of its 2 hour run because it’s largely character based, and these characters are silent, brooding, or alone, most of the time. Detroit is more of a symbolic choice than a low-budget setting; it is a place that has been abandoned, left behind, a relic of a brighter age, something that Adam must identify with because that is at the heart of his problem, and his depression. Tangiers, for Eve, is a place of returned interest; she has visited before, a long time ago, and goes back to experience the culture, or possibly to get some breathing room. And Ava, transitory, only has her world, wherever that might be.
By the last quarter of the film, Adam is forced from his isolation not by choice, but by necessity. Ava has drained Ian dry, and in the process destroyed some of Adam’s prized possessions, from records to equipment to his centuries-old Gibson. Knowing that he cannot remain, he and Eve kick Ava out and escape to Tangiers, where they attempt to find the disappeared Marlowe.
There is good reason for him laying low: he has drank a consumed batch of blood, and is on his deathbed. After he passes, the two wander, delirious, in the street, weak and thirsty. They spot a couple kissing, and Eve asks Adam to tell her about spooky action at a distance and quantum entanglement, something he mentioned before in Detroit. He tells her, as they lean in closer to look at the couple, that is about how when one intwined particle is separated into two, if one is altered or effected, then the other will be affected identically.
The only thing that truly bothered me about this film is that Chekhov’s gun is never fired; near the beginning we are told that Adam is looking for a bullet made from dense wood and with a copper casing, most likely because that is the only way a vampire can die. He only wants one – meaning he wants to kill himself. An unfired gun is well within Jarmusch’s right to use as a director and writer, but if you’re going to introduce a very specific type of bullet that kills a very specific type of creature, I’d like to see it in action. I think that, perhaps, he was going for the drama of introducing death into a deathless world – Adam wants to die, but he seems singular in that wish, and although Ian does die, he is a human, and there are fewer stakes for a human life in a vampire’s world. One of the downsides to living in a dream is that nothing has consequence. Ava is kicked out for ‘drinking’ Ian, but, continuing with the circular nature of the film, she has been kicked out before, and Eve has welcomed her back. So it is a little hard to believe that they all can keep running forever.
Nevertheless, the film is beautiful to watch; even though the length might turn some people off, it felt like coasting along a dream that always has the potential to become a nightmare. The long, uninterrupted shots of vampires walking around on the street or lying on the sofa listening to music reward patience with a kind of sumptuous feeling presentation; the feast of a dream, where it looks just convincing enough to be real. Vampires have always been creatures of the night, confined to darkness and the space under your bed, where one twist of the shadows might convince you they were real, but when the light is turned on, it’s as if you never knew why you believed in them in the first place.