By Ramia Adaeze
Jim Jarmursch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (OLLA) forgoes the expected beats of the vampire genre to deliver an unsentimental look on love and cultural decline.
Sundry monsters movies are allegories for universal (moral) themes such as good vs. evil. Even TWILIGHT, beyond its mope and angst, is a weird Mormonized morality tale about the dangers of premarital sex with blood-sucking acting as a stand-in for sexual desire. OLLA, however, dismisses this particular equivalence model for a more novel one. The rejection of outright feeding in the film, which historically would point to some abstinence reading, reveals more about culture, class and addiction than a neat morality.
Similar to 2008’s “Let the Right One In,” OLLA’s meandering plot focuses on a central relationship that just so happens to involve vampires. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), who never once let on that their characters’ names are silly are the titular lovers. A global couple, Adam lives in a decaying Detroit while Eve resides in an equally dilapidated Tangier. After a distressing Skype session where a melancholic Adam divulges some suicidal ideation, Eve rushes to her tragic love’s side.
Adam’s depression derives from a preoccupation with the artistic and cultural state of the world. Lamenting the failures of humanity, save the inventions of Nikola Tesla, Adam no longer wants to inhabit the world of the zombies, his unaffectionate term for mortals. It is easy to believe the perfect nature of their love by how Eve complements Adam’s moods. It takes Eve’s understanding to compare Adam’s abhorrence of the human “fear of imagination” to his cowardly suicidal ideation.
The Detroit setting is no coincidence but an affirmation of Adam’s fear. His nostalgia for the past, also demonstrated by a great collection of severely dated knick-knacks, results in a grim criticism of the present. However, instead of resorting to an uncritical hipster-like rejection of the-world-today, the immortal Adam & Eve are able to speak on progress because they lived through it. Their frequent and occasionally obscure references make the case that they are members of the cultural elite. Adam’s romanticizing of suicide and phony-hating, escapes adolescent preening because honestly he knows his shit.
At worst, this reads as snobbish world-weary elitism but not pretension. Purchasing bloody from crooked hospital attendants (Jeffrey Wright), the lovers refuse the traditional means of procuring blood. Feeding is a debasement above their high nature and knowledge; an act left to those without refinement or class.
Such a bestial creature is found in Eve’s blood sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an unwelcomed guest to detached Adam & Eve’s lover’s den. Crass, wild and impish, Ava, unlike Adam & Eve, has conformed nicely to humanity, making her residence in the “zombie capital” – Los Angeles. We are meant to believe that the lovers are the only ones truly alive, an ability unknown to mankind, but Ava’s existence as an assimilated, zombie-lover is attuned to a Y.O.L.O lifestyle. Whereas Adam and Eve’s nostalgic dress conforms to a updated 70’s nihilistic punk rock chic, Ava is everything bubblegum pop and miniskirts. She is the closest we get to a mouthpiece for the other side – happily self-absorbed.
Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) rounds out the cast as an elderly vampiric dandy. As Eve’s supplier of the “good stuff,” the vampires need for blood being akin to a junkie’s affliction. Marlowe’s old worldliness and good humor, along with his blood, keeps his friends in good spirits. An early sequence Marlowe and the lovers find themselves in the throes of blood ecstasy, later followed classic withdrawal symptoms. In fact, if all the references to vampire lore were removed, OLLA would have the feel of a “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” film, with Marlowe as patriarch and mentor of the ways of the world.
Beyond being an examination of cultural decay, “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a romance film. Adam & Eve’s dedication to each other – a marriage lasting several centuries and renewals! – is deeply seductive and heartwarming, professing an us versus the world closeness. Like Oskar and Eli in “Let the Right One In,” the love holds up even in the wake cruelest acts and gravest hypocrisies.
Ramia Adaeze is a feminist, who tweets @