Pandeia’s first film review by Sebastian Koskinen, on ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, released in 2013, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.
Romanticism is often evoked in our modern times. Like many other words – love, God or truth – it too has been brutally maimed, put into contexts so foreign that it’s no wonder its very essence has been forgotten. Whatever is left isn’t really popular. Even still, the days of Friedrich, Rachmaninoff and Shelley shine bright, full of explosive power, grandeur and raw beauty that first made them famous. This spirit hasn’t been as strong ever since, but even today, although rarely, some brave souls capture it in their art. My frank opinion is that in his newest movie Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch has done just that.
Before analysing the movie in-depth I think it’s necessary to say few words about romanticism as a sense of life. Ayn Rand’s definition in her brilliant The Romantic Manifesto is an excellent point of departure here. It is not the only definition but it succeeds in focusing on those parts of the movement that are relevant to this text. In Rand’s words:
“Romanticism is the conceptual school of art. It deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence. It does not record or photograph; it creates and projects. It is concerned—in the words of Aristotle—not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.”
Universals, particulars. Creating, recording. Is, ought. If we look at today’s entertainment, or art in general, it is of the particular, recording and is type. As a firm believer in art’s transmuting powers, I see this as worrying development. If art ceases to push our humanity to its limits, towards divine, its greatest potential will be lost. We need characters more perfect than ourselves to lead the way. Similarly, romanticism has never been ashamed of its moralist undertones but has scorchingly sought and judged humanity’s errors. So does Jarmusch’s newest and that’s why it’s so important.
A Love Story Spanning Centuries
Enter Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire movie. It’s setting isn’t too enticing as this genre has been ruined since HBO (infamous for advocating anything but romanticism) released True Blood, a series partly responsible for a surge of interest in vampire fiction. But Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t really a vampire movie. Vampirism here is only a literary device to show us, the audience, the decay of our world. Against the modern condition is laid the romantic tradition, now roughly three centuries old, through Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two vampires who linger on almost lifeless. Not because of their vampirism but because of us humans, ‘zombies’, and the mess we’ve made of all that is beautiful and meaningful.
It is a snobbish premise that, along with the movie’s slow pace, noisy drone soundtrack and constant name-dropping might make it off-putting for some. I would argue, though, that every little detail, every small cause for irritation, earns its place in the movie. They are defendable.
Romanticists, as opposed to pragmatic and dashing technocrats, have always been ridiculed because of their allegedly childish faith in empty ideals and their yearning for olden times, to some sort of original state of being, connected to nature.
When the movie begins Adam is (apparently again) feeling suicidal. Living in his retro furnished Gothic mansion miles away from everyone else, he keeps fatal thoughts at bay by composing music with a plethora of vintage instruments, delivered to him by Ian (Anton Yelchin), a decent ‘zombie’ and a master at acquiring obscure items. Centuries old, Adam has influenced the careers of countless famous musicians and scientist from Schubert to Tesla. On his wall hang the portraits of stern looking men and women – pretty much all the romantic minds of the past from Edgar Allan Poe to Newston. But now, away from his beloved, Adam subsists in seclusion somewhere in Detroit.
Adam’s scorn against modernity is reflected in his dwellings: Tesla-inspired contraptions embrace the floors, ceilings and walls amidst vinyl records, tube amplifiers and decades old technology. This echoes the early romanticists’ skepticism towards industrialisation and the ‘consumer’ that was born in its wake. For them techno-fix wasn’t a solution; no amount of pragmatic engineering could win their hearts that only beat to nature. In Adam’s case ‘back to nature’ may be too extreme as going back is, at this point, hopelessly impossible. But he is at least trying.
Then we have Eve, promenading Tangier’s nocturnal streets, on the other side of world away from her husband. Whereas Adam embodies the romantic ideal of a solitary, heroic artist, Eve fulfills her role as a tender, soft-spoken woman. In Tangier her days are spent reading old and new tomes, dancing and having discussions with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the real life poet who, according to legends, faked his death and continued writing as Shakespeare. He, too, is a vampire.
It seems that blood is their only drug, food and beverage. They mean no harm, and even in their superiority choose the path of non-violence.
The scene where these characters first drink blood is telling. The red liquid that fuels their monastic lives is pacifically procured and then sipped from chalices. It seems that blood is their only drug, food and beverage. They mean no harm, and even in their superiority choose the path of non-violence. One can recall Percy Shelley’s words when he, like many other romanticists, declared that meat is murder (centuries before The Smiths) and chose vegetarianism as his diet.
Modest and almost pious they are also when they, after being separated for years, finally meet. Adam courteously addresses his lady, they make silly jokes and wonder at nature – at stars, small animals and plants – like some angelic children. When they make love it’s not even shown. Their statuesque pale bodies are only framed in insanely beautiful poses afterwards. It’s old school, and what matters is the idea, not the act anyway. To wonder every day, even if you are centuries is old, is the very essence of romanticism.
Only Lovers Left Alive is an ode to permanence but also a brief introduction to romantic sense of life. As such it is valuable to anyone who wants to slow down or learn detachment (positive, spiritual kind). Finally, it’s greatest weaknesses – name-dropping, nostalgic rant – can maybe be explained through romanticism itself. As a movement fixated to a mythic age and mystic connection with nature, romantics have always had their eyes on the past. After all, and more growingly, that’s where all their heroes dwell. That, it seems, is all they’ve got.