It’s a rare movie that wraps you up in its own unique dreamspace. I suppose that’s the ultimate goal for any director, and any scriptwriter, too. Many movies try to do that. Many movies fail. The story, whatever it is, exists as a dream in the writer/director’s head before it makes it to the screen, before words are put to paper. There is something to say, something to contemplate, a world to be inhabited, characters that need to speak. The goal, the hope, is that whatever that dreamspace is will translate.
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive has one of the most luscious and evocative and emotional dreamspaces I’ve experienced in a long time, and while the movie lasts, you are caught in it, submerged in its mood and feeling. It takes a long time for the effects to wear off. The characters in Only Lovers Left Alive are nocturnal, by necessity, and emerging from the film is akin to walking out in bright sunlight after being in a dark space for hours on end. You shake your head to let the dream go.
John Cassevetes once said, “I don’t care about the scene. I only care about what happens between people.” Jim Jarmusch is the same way. He is interested in the charged space that exists between people: they could be strangers, they could be a long-time married couple … but when human beings (or, as in Only Lovers Left Alive, the undead) interact, a charge is transferred, something sparks, something ignites. The spark is not controlled. Anything can happen in that space: empathy can open up, or close down, connections can be made and lost, understanding achieved or disintegrated. Human beings often shy away from those sparks, because they cannot be controlled. We fall back on cliches or small talk in order to bear the interaction. We do so automatically. It’s not necessarily rude. It’s how we survive. Jarmusch removes those barriers. All that is left behind is the raw and open space “between people.” What happens in that space? How do we listen to one another? How do we share ourselves and share our perspective on things? Are we alone? Or can a hand cross that abyss and pull you over?
Only Lovers Left Alive tells the story of a longtime married couple. They got hitched in the 1860s. They are vampires (although the word is never spoken in the film). Their names are Adam and Eve. They are played brilliantly by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. At the beginning of the film, Adam is hiding out in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of Detroit, surrounded by his collection of guitars and amps, and Eve is holed up in Tangier, books stacked against every wall. Travel is challenging, since they have to avoid the sunlight. Blood supply is a constant issue, especially since so much blood is now contaminated. Getting “the good stuff” requires connections. Eve has a connection in Tangier, a “doctor”, also an undead being, who is actually Christopher Marlowe (played by John Hurt). “Kit” is able to hook Eve up with “the good stuff,” procured somewhere in the warren-maze streets of Tangier. Adam, meanwhile, has a connection at a Detroit hospital, a “Dr. Watson” (Jeffrey Wright), who gives him thermoses of blood in exchange for wads of cash, no questions asked.
It is not clear why the couple is across the world from one another, although the opening sequence makes clear, visually, that geography is irrelevant. A record spins on the record player. It is Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love.” As the swoon-y gritty song plays from the Queen of Rockabilly, we see Eve from above, the camera circling over her, echoing the circling of the record. Her beige hair is long and wild, and she lies on the floor against a sky-blue bed, surrounded by books. We see Adam, sprawled on a leather couch, surrounded by shadows, guitar in hand, also with the camera circling above him. The images continue to alternate, circling, circling, no movement from the figures, the only movement coming from the camera. They are on opposite sides of the world. They are connected. Life is hard. Adam is depressed and lonely for his wife. Eve flies to Detroit (making sure all the flights are night-flights) to be with him.
From the get-go, I was caught in the dreamspace of Only Lovers Left Alive. Not much happens. It is a story of a marriage. There are a couple of other characters: John Hurt’s “Kit,” a grizzled old guy, who still seethes somewhat because Shakespeare got the glory for works written by him. “He was illiterate …” moans Kit. There is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who shows up uninvited in Detroit, asking to crash. There is bad blood, so to speak. Something bad went down in Paris once, involving Ava. She is impulsive, reckless, bratty. She plays with Adam’s drum set, grinning at him, hoping for approval. He glowers. It’s like any in-law drama you’ve ever seen. Except they’re all the Undead.
There is a humor in that dichotomy, but it’s not presented in a cutesy way, i.e. “Oh, isn’t it funny to have a vampire man bitch about his vampire sister-in-law to his vampire wife?” In Jarmusch’s dreamspace, it’s an emotional confrontation, with a sister-in-law who shows up uninvited, and leaves a trail of wreckage wherever she goes. Adam is right to be cautious. Eve feels torn. Ava is hurt.
The plot is not the thing here, anyway. “The thing” here is a portrait of a marriage. A good marriage. When one is in need, as Adam is in the beginning, contemplating suicide, lonely, the other does what she has to do to get to his side. The reunion is breath-taking. They play chess. They listen to music. They talk about music. After all, Adam lives in the city of Motown, although, as Eve says to him, “I’m more of a Stax girl, myself.” She tries to get him to lighten up. She takes care of him. She makes fresh-blood popsicles, and they suck on them as they play chess.
He is gloomy. She is practical. She tries to get him to see the bright side. She forces him to dance with her, even though he’s not in the mood. The scene where they circle around, playfully, sexily, intimately, all to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” is a swoon of romance.
Things happen. Bad things. But all around it is the magical and strange darkness of the night, the spaces in between people, the relationships, the inter-relation of all things. Having been alive for so long, the vampires have a wealth of knowledge. Eve touches one of his guitars and knows the make and model, merely from what her fingertips tell her. She speaks every language on the planet and speed-reads books, inhaling them. He was a Romantic – like, literally. He hung out with Byron and Shelley. He saw Eddie Cochran play. He writes music and releases it anonymously. Blood is hard to come by. It seems that they may be at the end of the road.
Jarmusch films all of this with a heightened and glamorous drama, the shadows thick and encroaching on the figures. In one scene, we see Adam and Eve lying in bed together, the blankets are black, their skin is white, and they are so entwined it is hard to tell whose limb is whose. It’s gorgeous. Detroit seems like an abandoned city. It is seen only at night, the bright lights of downtown glimmering faintly in the distance from the bombed-out outskirts, overrun by gigantic empty factories and shells of houses. Adam and Eve take long drives at night. They drive by the house where Jack White grew up, and sit there in the car at the curb, staring up at it. They are still capable of being amazed by things. It is the main way they connect.
Our culture is drenched in vampires. It always has been, since they first stepped onto the scene. Currently, of course, we have the tween version, with glittery skin and Superman powers, vampires being turned into a metaphor for self-sacrifice. There is that here, too: the undead here do not kill, or “turn” people. At least they try not to. They try to get by with blood procured from other places. Humans do intersect with them, sometimes on comfortable terms, but, in general, Adam and Eve keep their distance. It’s better for all involved to keep a low profile.
Tangier and Detroit are the locations, filmed only at night. It’s a a dark and twisty insomniac underworld where everyone seems both out of place and at home at the same time. Everyone needs something. Everyone is wandering the streets, looking for a fix. Whatever it might be. Sex, drugs, black-market blood, companionship. The vampires don’t “pass” as normal people, not really. You get the sense that the humans know something may be strange about them, but they’re not sure what. They always wear gloves when out in public. They wear sunglasses at night. They seem to communicate without language.
Einstein’s “spooky entanglement” theory is mentioned once at the beginning, briefly, and then brought back near the very end. How do quantum particles react to one another, mirroring one another, changing, reversing, whatever, while at opposite ends of the universe? How is that possible? It could be seen as the theme of the film, or at least the theme of the marriage between Adam and Eve. Without getting intellectual about it, Jarmusch shows us that interconnected-ness from the very first scene, with the twirling record, and the twirling couple, separated by thousands of miles.
Once upon a time, Hollywood used to specialize in something sometimes referred to as the comedy of remarriage, where a husband and wife who have separated or divorced find their way back to one another. The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, is a high watermark of the form. His Girl Friday. The list goes on and on. What was so special about these films, and what is still so special, is that the re-marriage comedy doesn’t have to trouble itself over a “meet cute,” or a falling-in-love process, or the other things that go into typical romances. The remarriage comedy features a couple who has already been through all that. They’ve got some miles on them. You can’t fool your partner anymore like you did during the courtship stage. The mystery is gone. But with the disappearance of mystery, other more profound things start to come into play. The audience is thrust smack-dab into the middle of a well-worn relationship, and when these films work, you ache for them to get over themselves and get back together. It also makes marriage look like the biggest possible adventure.
In its strange undead way, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the best and most positive films about marriage I’ve seen in a long long time. This is a working relationship. Adam has strengths and weaknesses, so does Eve. They balance each other out. They reach out for one another, glancing towards one another, for confirmation, or questions asked/answered, many times without any language exchanged. They hang out. They talk about literature and music. They problem-solve together. What he cares about, she cares about, and vice versa. The needs of his soul are on her radar. Always. It’s a partnership.
The more I think about the film, the more I think about those separated quantum particles, spinning and reversing, and reacting to what is happening with its partner across the universe. Adjusting: “Oh, you’re going this way now? Okay, lemme catch up, so I can go that way too.” Balance, connection, mirroring.
Like Cassavetes said: The scene doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what happens between people. And the space “between” could mean across the room or across the universe.
Only Lovers Left Alive is all about that. It’s a swooning dark dreamspace of love.