Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is even more weighed down by perspective. The aimless idiots of Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law had little in the way of inner lives, but this immortal couple are wholly internalised, centuries of shared knowledge hanging in the air between them unspoken, emotions conveyed in long-rehearsed gestures, futility and a lack of looming mortality slowing everything to a narcotic crawl even by Jarmusch’s standards. This comes with age, of course, and although it isn’t the most challenging premise he’s ever worked with, the film stands among Jarmusch’s most mature existential texts, understanding implicitly the ways things change and the ways they don’t. In the very opening shot the camera circles his characters as though they’re spinning on a record player, going nowhere in particular but always subject to time’s passage.
Tom Hiddleston’s Adam is your classic pale brooding sort, sitting reclusively in his darkened, cluttered Detroit mansion, admiring his guitar collection and penning depressing post-punk for the “zombies” he claims not to care about. This is the vampires’ nickname for the mortals, and Adam’s hostility in their direction arises from his perception of how bankrupt their culture is getting these days. He’s a bit of a disillusioned hipster, in other words, in a huff about a pop culture zeitgeist in step with neither his favourite works (many of which he or his old friends, such as John Hurt’s slightly generic Christopher Marlowe, had a hand in) nor his recent musical dirges. Fortunately for Adam, his beloved Eve is only a FaceTime-call away, and soon she’s travelling back to try and lift him out of what has become a suicidal malaise (she blames his time lounging around with the Romantics). Tilda Swinton does something quite magical in this role, not oscillating between ethereal timelessness and childlike joy but conveying both at once, her movements dignified but spontaneous, the light of her eyes glimmering through the tiredness of her thin-lipped smile.
The pair shake up their mutual, swooning ennui by exploring the city together at night, taking in music, discussing their past through a hodgepodge of cultural reference points, dealing with Eve’s insufferable philistine niece Ava (Mia Wasikowska), and one senses they’ve been here before, time and time again. Theirs is a love so deep-rooted that nothing between them is new, and indeed nothing needs to be; they’ve lived long enough to understand that most pleasures are novelty and novelty is fleeting, yet everything becomes a little less meaningless when shared with a loved one. The pair’s constant namedropping has been criticised by many, but they serve a purpose here beyond the obvious; namely, to emphasise that art culture is the primary way we’ve always connected to the world and one another, and then to provide a humbling wide-lens view of our evolution in time. Each reference point is a microscopically tiny, disposable element in the grand tapestry of history, and yet one can also intimate from these characters that when one has seen and done everything, it’s the arts that continue to linger in the memory and provide the most fulfillment. This ties in with Jarmusch’s sensual, decadent images which, flickering neon in a burnt-out early hours Detroit seemingly on the verge of apocalypse, could only be created by someone in love with movies, desperate to see them survive in a world that increasingly has no use for the arts.
Jarmusch’s determination to invest the lovers with such history, personality and chemistry (their interactions are always infused with convincing tenderness even when something else is happening on the surface, as though Swinton and Hiddleston have lived in these roles forever) in such a short time is a testament to his passion for what many are calling a minor trifle (a penny for all the times Jarmusch has heard that would make him a damn sight richer), but also inevitable when you realise how age-old his langourous rhythms have always seemed. These characters were made for him, but he was also made for them, and he treats them as kindred spirits. Only Lovers Left Alive takes a surprising left-turn with a final act transition to the narrow, winding cobbles of Tangiers, and the pair discover there are still new and wonderful things to be found, inspired to begin an unlikely new chapter in a life without new chapters. As in Vamps, the climactic scene has its characters arrive at a decision sad, pragmatic and romantic in equal measure. In rummaging through a shared landscape of personal and cultural memories, both films tap into acute feelings of loss and yearning, but they also affirm life’s beautiful absurdity and capacity for joyful surprise, insisting that time’s cruel clutches will never destroy all of the reasons for humankind, and especially the movies, to go on existing.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.