Brief impression: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

May 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

After the initial giddy feeling inspired by the geeky, cheeky last shot of Jim Jarmusch’s newest picture, I immediately began to wonder if the white-haired iconoclast had unwittingly undermined the preceding two hours of his movie or whether he was making some kind of a statement with this image of married vampires Adam and Eve approaching the camera, fangs drolly bared, coming in for their close-up, for their kill.

This drily romantic movie infuses Jarmusch’s aloof, absurdist style with moments of sensual expressiveness that I can’t remember seeing much of in his previous work. Considering the movie’s setting is entirely nocturnal, source light plays a key visual role in all its forms, from dull glows indoors to effervescent streaks and pulses out on the streets; this somehow provides an ambience that suggests both a sense of nostalgia for the past and a zest for the present. Adam is fed up after being exposed for centuries to the eternal foolishness of mankind (though there is a strong possibility that he is just as equally fed up with himself), but Eve, on the other hand, seems to lack Adam’s misanthropic depression; she has soul, a love of literature and knowledge (hence the biblical namesake?) and the ability to marvel at a breed of fungus and quote its binomial nomenclature. The one thing they do seem to share unequivocally and in equal measure is a love for blood, which they acquire illegally, lap up from little crystal chalices and respond to as if it were grade-A heroin.

So when Eve travels from Tangiers to Detroit to once again free her reclusive rock god husband from his Cobain-as-portrayed-in-Gus-van-Sant’s-“Last-Days” style melancholy, one could be forgiven for expecting Adam to gradually – perhaps painfully – gain a newfound appreciation for life and all its wonders. But being a Jarmusch film, this isn’t quite the case, and though there is a moment towards the end when Adam seems to experience awe for what may be the first time in decades if not centuries, the truth is that when life is stripped down to its bare scaffoldings and they are forced to reconsider their priorities, the only thing that either Adam or Eve seem to give a shit about is blood. Five hundred years ago they would have feasted on the necks of victims; today they acquire screened blood from dodgy doctors. But in the event of a shortage of good sangre they are willing to abandon their modern, civilised methods to get their juice of choice. Even Adam, a man who is practically suicidal, will kill to live. Funny.

Getting back to that final shot: I wonder if Jarmusch is suggesting that human endeavour and human values are ultimately subservient to our innate desire to survive, to simply exist as living beings at the very least. While we are here on this rock we may seek knowledge, expression, love and companionship, pleasure…but above all we just want to breathe. Perhaps this is the irony of Adam’s disdain for mortal men whom he nicknames “zombies” assumedly on account of their (our) mindlessness and their (our) being relative slaves to their basest and most basic instincts. But isn’t Adam, he who is the only living true Renaissance man, just as much of a zombie as the next warm-blooded individual when it comes to his utter dependence on his crimson life force? And isn’t Eve, who seems to think she is Gaia incarnate, no more than a junkie with a predilection for reading and music? Perhaps Jarmusch is gently ridiculing his creations while adoring them with his camera (an approach that scores of film artists over the decades have taken), though I will say that he clearly admires Eve’s considerable verve.

I still think there is more to “Only Lovers Left Alive”, or would at least like to think that there is, but am not quite sure what this would be. This movie’s final image is either loaded with subtext, or it is Jarmusch saying “hey, it’s just a vampire movie after all – this is what they do, is it not?”

* As an aside, I wonder if “Only Lovers Left Alive” would make one half of a fitting immortals-living-amongst-us double-feature when paired with Wim Wenders’ magnificent “Wings of Desire”, if only to contrast Damiel the angel’s desire to become human and to feel human in the latter with Adam’s sheer disdain for mankind and everything it stands for in the former, though one could argue that the very thing which Damiel envies about humanity is precisely what Adam feels our species has lost or perhaps never did have and that Damiel is in for a nasty surprise. But then again, Eve represents much of what Damiel romanticises about the human experience, and she could very well be seen as an analogue of Marion, the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-loving trapeze artist with whom Damiel falls in love and who is as much a muse to him as Eve clearly is to Adam. 

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