Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Only Lovers Left Alive follows two vampires, centuries old, as they navigate the modern world, one from a distance and once from deep within. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) hides in a stuffy Detroit house where he can record his music in some kind of peace, though he hardly seems to find any. On the opposite side of the world is Eve (Tilda Swinton), a woman we know he has a connection with but only because they’re both vampires.
The film begins with a trance-like sequence of Adam and Eve lying on the ground while the camera swirls slowly towards them alongside the rhythmic music of Adam’s own creation. It takes a few minutes before we realize that Adam and Eve aren’t together, but the scene connects them nonetheless, as if there is a rope that binds them no matter where they are. Later we will see them feed (aka drink blood) in a moment full of apparent ecstasy and pleasure. This again is done apart from each other but shot in such a way that we cut between the two characters (and a third), showing how in sync they are whether simply because of their species or something deeper.
Adam is sullen where Eve is exuberant. She lives in Tangiers, and you get the feeling that she has only settled there after years of exploring, while Adam feels stuck in Detroit, comparing his own misery and the decay of civilization with that of the rundown parts of the city. One night Adam calls up Eve and without saying so, asks her to come visit, which she does. They have a couple nights together in which, despite years apart, they feel as close as they could ever be. Then Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) visits, and in vampires years she is basically a child. Her excitement and almost manic personality comes into clear conflict with the quiet natures of Adam and Eve.
Even though Adam and Eve are centuries old, and they discuss all the famous artists they’ve known in the past, we get the sense that they’ve only recently found some kind of stability in their lives. At least, that’s the case for Adam. He has a friend named Ian (Anton Yelchin) who runs errands for him and makes his life just a little easier though no more enjoyable. He also has a friendly-ish doctor (Jeffrey Wright) from whom he gets liters of ‘pure’ blood (O negative).
Who knows how long it’s taken for Adam to find this kind of set up, but given how old he is and how quickly time must pass for vampires compared to humans, it’s easy to assume that this is all very new. It’s like there’s a wild dog that has survived years in the streets, and then one day it suddenly becomes domesticated. That’s what it feels like.
Adam and Eve allude to the past when they could easily kill someone to drink their blood, but getting away with murder isn’t quite so easy anymore so they get their blood in less criminal but probably still illegal ways. Basically, they’re designed to feed on humans, but they do everything not to. And it’s not just that they have a hunger-like appetite, but it’s also made to be sexual. Adam and Eve, in separate moments, look on as someone deals with a cut or a doctor dresses a bloody wound, and their expressions are ones of pure lust. Blood isn’t just necessary to survive for these vampires, it’s also necessary to really live. They feel the most when they drink blood and, to a lesser or greater extent, when they feed on a living human.
But the problem, it seems, is that not all humans are created equal. When Ava eventually kills Ian and drinks his blood, she complains that she feels sick, and Eve tells her something along the lines of ‘what did you expect? He’s in the music industry,’ implying that his blood/body is somewhat poisoned by drugs and alcohol. Hell, maybe it’s even an ego thing, like the attitudes of the people you consume are just as important to the quality of their blood.
Adam yearns for the days of old when there were great artists and scientists, and he ridicules the “zombies” of today. Every human, to Adam, is a zombie. He thinks they absolutely suck. The term “zombie” might connote someone who just doesn’t do anything, but Adam loathes modern day humans both for their inactivity as well as their destructive tendencies. He shows Eve an old Detroit theater, one magnificent but now completely wasted away, and he blames the zombies. When Ava tells them that she is now living in Los Angeles, Adam calls the city ‘zombie central.’ Zombies are wasteful, reckless, destructive, vapid and pointless.
Ian is the closest human friend Adam has, and he calls him “not bad for a zombie.” Everyone’s a zombie, no matter what. Adam’s music is somewhat famous, but he despises fame like it’s a plague. So it feels like there’s absolutely no meaning in Adam’s life, except for Eve who he hasn’t seen in years. Near the start of the film, Adam has Ian go out and get someone to construct a dense wooden bullet which Adam can use to shoot himself in the heart if he so chooses. He never does, but at some point Eve discovers it, and she lashes into him for not living.
Both Adam and Eve are incredibly smart from having lived for so many years. Adam can skillfully play just about any instrument it seems, Eve can read just about any language, and both of them can accurately date just about everything whether it’s a guitar or a car or even a stethoscope. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything, and to Eve that’s a sign of magic in the world, but to Adam it’s a sign of what there still is to watch waste away. Eve sees things growing, and Adam sees them falling apart.
It’s fascinating to imagine the way Adam and Eve see the world. When Adam shows Eve the rotting old Detroit theater, he tells her it was built in the 1920s as if it’s extremely old, and to us it is. But later, when Ava arrives and eventually kills Ian, Adam implies she did a similar thing (killing his human friend) in the early 1920s, as if it happened only a few months ago. So how do they perceive time?
It must be both incredibly beautiful and tragic to watch something rise up and then decay so quickly. I have to imagine that, given Adam and Eve are centuries old, then a decade, for example, must feel like a year. If you’re 400, and 10 years pass, then it’s like being 40 years old and watching 1 year pass. And I think they’re even older than that, much older.
So watching Detroit construct this beautiful theater and then let it fall into disrepair must feel like the same timespan as Michael Phelps’ Olympic career. He showed up as a 15 year old in 2000 and swam in his last Olympics last year in 2016. In that same amount of time, from a vampire’s perspective, this city is thriving (I suppose?) and builds this beautiful theater and then suddenly it’s utterly forgotten. I guess it’s like if Michael Phelps swam his last race at the Olympics and no one showed up to watch.
That’s got to be tough, then, for someone like Adam. All he focuses on is the way things fall apart and not the way they grow. A lot of people see the world today like Adam and others see it like Eve. There is a lot of reason to be pessimistic and even scared today due to things like how much we know about global warming, global terrorism, etc. but there are also reasons to be excited and hopeful due to medical advances and whatnot. So you can see the world however you want. If Adam and Eve each wrote a science fiction novel, then Adam’s would feel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Eve’s would feel like The Jetsons.
After Ava kills Ian, Eve decides to bring Adam with her to Tangiers. They leave behind what’s left of his ‘pure’ blood supply, but Eve tells him that there is plenty of blood to be had from a friend of theirs in Tangiers. When they get there, however, their friend is dying, and they visit with him upon his death bed. His death is due to drinking bad blood, and this suddenly shows how vulnerable these almost immortal creatures are.
At the beginning of the story we saw how Adam and Eve had put together their unique routines of daily life, but now these routines have fallen apart. Each of them has lost someone, and now they only have each other. By reuniting, it’s as if they start to return to their old ways, like any couple might that gets together after a long time apart.
Each has found a way to feed without killing, but with no way of getting blood, they return to their carnal ways. Adam and Eve watch a young, full of life couple embrace and lovingly kiss each other, and they ruminate on their own fates as lovers. Adam explains how, even across the world, they will always be connected. It’s as if they compare themselves to this young couple, and then they descend on the humans, so they can feed.
In many ways this just feels like a story of two domesticated cats learning to survive in the wild again, at least in the third act. From their perspective, again, it hasn’t been very long since murder became harder to get away with. I imagine killing someone and feasting on their lifeblood wasn’t so hard to get away with in the 1930s if you knew how to be sneaky, and it certainly wasn’t hard to get away with in the 1700s unless you called too much attention to yourself.
Now that I think about it, the time that Adam yearns for seems to be just before murder became harder to get away with. It’s like he thinks he misses the artists and scientists of old, but what he really misses is simply feasting on a human. What he hates now is this world where he can’t get away with killing a human, so he has to go to greater lengths to get laboratory blood, and killing humans isn’t even safe because their blood might be unsafe. Adam is simply a vampire who does more suppressing than he does embracing. He wants one thing, he can’t get it, so he becomes moody and looks for other people and things to blame.
Eve is much better prepared to live in this world. Maybe she has her own way of feasting, or maybe she’s just more mature. She is, after all, much older than Adam from what I can tell. Maybe their relationship is more Harold & Maude than I thought. Adam just might be a more temperamental teenager of a vampire while she is firmly middle-aged, and that makes Ava’s own childish nature make much more sense.
So the movie simply ends with Adam and Eve returning to their old ways, and we can probably assume they’ve taken a break from killing people for a few decades, which is hardly any time at all for them. It’s like they took a time out from murder, counted to ten, and then leapt right back into it.
Overall, this movie feels very rhythmic, even repetitive. Adam’s music scores the movie, and his pieces never really build. His music establishes a rhythm or pace and just rides that out for the duration of the song. It creates a feeling both of desperation and resignation. For Adam, everything is either awful or the same, and he will focus on whichever aspect of life lets him indulge in his misery. At times things are getting worse (the decay), and occasionally the music seems to get heavier like a teddy bear that’s getting more and more waterlogged through a rainstorm. But at other times the music just feels completely the same, and this follows how Adam might see the world (and life after so much time) as completely and utterly the same. That might even make it redundant. Adam has no hope for the world even though at one point he did. By the end of the movie, he has some hope, but it’s for him and Eve and no one else. He has let go of the idea of fitting into the world whether as a person or with his music, and now he is just a vampire or whoever Eve wants him to be.
Eve, on the other hand, never seems to have lost who she is or was. She follows Adam’s lead when it comes time to eat the loving couple at the end of the film, but it feels like this is something she might’ve done at any time. She simply had to wait for Adam to catch up, to get over himself and embrace who they are. In other words, she was just being polite.