Culture Magazine

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013) — A Parable of Class Consciousness

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

They are highly educated, obviously literate, poetry and music loving British vampires (well, at least we think they're British - and they have the accents to prove it). And they suck the very life out of others. They are the indolent rich, the upper-class city dwellers who look down on everyone else. That is the essence of entitlement.

Independent writer-director-producer-musician Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive from 2013 is a knowing poke at the vampire legend. More likely, it's a repository of modern notions about vampirism and its relationship to the ruling class.

Cruising around their neighborhood in a vintage automobile, our vampire popstars radiate a wealthy person's curiosity (more like disdain, if you must know) for how the "other half" lives and dies. In the couple's case, the neighborhood happens to be a hollowed-out Detroit, the very emblem of a once thriving metropolis whose innards have been eaten away by riots and firebombs. With little concern for money and means, the vampires travel the world on red-eye specials - first-class all the way. Where they got their windfall is anybody's guess.

They are such elegant creatures, slim and handsome, the so-named "beautiful people." To behold them is to be in thrall to them. Their manners are cultivated and polite, their command of language and mores without question. Yet they scrupulously avoid encounters with the locals, the oblivious riff-raff they often disparage as "zombies" or the walking dead, the ones who lack souls (how ironic).

Vampires have the power to take a life or preserve it indefinitely. When they use the expression "to turn," they mean to transform someone into one of their own. Yet they do so cautiously, never in haste and never indiscriminately. They are intimately aware of their surroundings; a sixth sense guards their thoughts. Indeed, they are forever mindful of whatever environment they happen to inhabit.

There are three British vampires in all (Mia Wasikowska, the actress who plays Ava, is Australian born and of Polish descent; the others are London natives). They speak from a triad of opposing viewpoints. By the way, they are older (oh, so much older!) than their looks betray. One of them is bored with living. Adam (Tom Hiddleston), the rock-star recluse, is a guitar freak who adores his collection. He is also a songwriter and a trained musician, someone who has invested his time and energy (à la Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the ne plus ultra of repetitive purgatory) in strictly artistic pursuits.

The doctor (whose name tag reads "Dr. Watson"), played by a glum and solemn Jeffrey Wright ( Basquiat, HBO's Westworld), at the hospital where Adam obtains his regular supply of O negative blood, is overly inquisitive about his motives. By comparison, the vampire has a name tag of his own: "Dr. Faust" (later, "Dr. Caligari"), a tribute to Adam's closeness to Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (John Hurt), the (ahem) true author of Hamlet and other Shakespearean delights. He also sports an out-of-date stethoscope, which almost gives him away.

His opposite number, Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam's soul-mate, never goes anywhere without her precious book collection. Her suitcases are packed with literary classics of international fiction (Beckett, Cervantes, Mishima, Verne, Kafka, et al.). Personality-wise, she is curious and receptive to new experiences.

Her little sister Ava (definitely not of the "Gardner" persuasion) is a nonstop party hound, the epitome of teenage impulsiveness, a grasping, needy twenty-something or other (but who can really tell?). She is cold and calculating, feigning admiration for but demanding constant attention from everyone around her. She invents every excuse for her overindulgence. Unnerving yet unrelenting, Ava is heedless of the advice given to her, i.e., to tone down her act lest she betray their presence among the living dead.

Although Adam, Eve (Tilda Swinton), and Ava come across as languid and lethargic, they are far from it. We learn that vampires can turn in a flash with lightning-quick velocity: a thrust of the hand in the blink of an eye. Ava, the petulant third wheel, is a constant spoke in Adam's side. She's high maintenance and quite the cross to bear. On a double date with Adam and Eve, Ava makes an obvious play for the gullible Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is either too dumb to notice the threat or too eager to hit it off with the brattish girl-child.

Adoring the limelight, she draws needless attention to herself, which goes against the grain of the vampire's instinct to be inconspicuous. Adam displays a controlled fury when he and Eve discover Ava has trashed his prized LP collection. Worse, she has sucked the life out of Ian, Adam's human go-between, a scrounger to end all scroungers, and a fellow dedicated to serving the would-be rocker (who greases Ian's palm with a thick wad of bills). Every vampire needs his Renfield, the Guy Friday between the daylight hours, to run errands the night creatures are incapable of performing, given their susceptibility to the sun's rays.

Contrast Ian's behavior, which can be deceptive and secretive, to that of the openly submissive yet amiable manservant Bilal (Slimane Dazi), who caters to Eve and Marlowe's every whim. In the end, Bilal is rewarded for his loyalty and friendship as well as his stewardship, specifically where the elderly and infirm Marlowe's health is concerned. Subservience, it seems, conveys the leisure-class notion of loyalty and paying obeisance to one's betters. Ian, on the other hand, is held in suspicion (and rightly so) for his underhanded bootlegging of Adam's music without his knowledge.

Adam actively shuns the spotlight, as it were, which Ian cannot comprehend. Adam's music is absolutely fabulous, Ian claims, openly broadcasting his naivete. But Adam does not buy it. Having personally befriended many of the world's most stimulating minds (his wall is covered with their portraits, among them Johann Sebastian Bach, Henry Purcell, Gustav Mahler, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and Nicola Tesla), Adam remains what he is: an enlightened yet elusive recluse. Ian fails to recognize that Adam seeks not fame and fortune but personal satisfaction - a highly unusual aim for such a talented individual, but understandable under the circumstances.

The illogical nature of British intellectualism, and the feeling of superiority they harbor over lesser mortals - these are the general themes of Jarmusch's picture. But don't be fooled by the highfaluting veneer. Jarmusch's little in-joke is that we are ALL British subjects under the sun; that over-exposure - those fleeting fifteen minutes of fame that pop-artist Andy Warhol once warned about - will be over before we know it. In other words, enjoy your life while it lasts. It may soon be taken away from you.

Still, we're in the presence of vampire royalty. The décor, the furniture, indeed the basic layout itself tend to (you'll pardon the expression) "reflect" (snicker, snicker) a hedonistic, self-absorbed lifestyle tailored to exalted pursuits. In reality, Adam's unkempt abode is that of someone who has spent too many late nights in pondering the meaning of it all, which has left his residence in ruins. The plumbing doesn't work, the toilet doesn't flush - but what do vampires need a functioning toilet for, anyway? They don't "eat" or defecate, not as we know it. What they "drink" only goes in and never comes out, unless someone pierces their hides with a wooden stake, or bullet for that matter.

Early on, Adam contemplates suicide. Why not end it all, he muses? This maddening nighttime existence can be sooo trying at times! Fortunately for all concerned, he thinks the better of it. Best to stimulate the senses with a shot of iron-rich blood, or a frozen-blood popsicle. Now that's what we call "living"!

The sight of a 45-rpm single spinning round and round propels the story into perpetual motion. One reviewer employed the phrase "a whiter shade of pale" to define the vampires' sickly skin tones. How utterly apropos, considering that the sixties progressive-rock band Procol Harum once re-appropriated Bach's "Air for the G String" (from his Orchestral Suite No. 3), to the same "A Whiter Shade of Pale" title, in an effort to evoke the song's classical construct. The organ riff at the start and throughout that number completes the sonic picture of classicism in a contemporary pop setting.

Which also describes Jarmusch's film, his first in the digital realm: It's classical pop with a cinematic twist of lime on the rocks. Music plays an integral part in numerous scenes, as do the ambient night noises on the soundtrack (howls, barks, screeches, and so forth). What sweet sounds they make!

The late David Bowie and former singer-actress Marianne Faithfull have also been cited as major influences on Tilda Swinton and Mia Wasikowska's looks, voices, and comportment, albeit with stringy, tousled coiffure. Adam's equally wiry, bird's nest of a mane reminds one of a wigged-out Tiny Tim (the quavery-pitched ukulele player, not the Charles Dickens character). But the Swinton/Bowie connection is the most promising, androgyny and gender-based polemics be damned.

Having drained Ian's life essence, Ava gets sick to her stomach (again, the disease of "bad blood" infects the vampires as much as it does the mortals). Consequently, she is banished from the household. How dare she defile the roost with this manifestly selfish act? But what to do with the body? We have no compulsion to reveal what becomes of Ian's corpse. Only, that evidence of Adam and Eve's "disposal" of it will, sooner or later, bring the local authorities to snoop about at the pair's expense.

When, concurrently, the couple's blood supply has dwindled to a few precious gulps, they flee to Tangier in Morocco with whatever is left of their resources - to a foreign, less developed land where their hold on the populace is secure and readily accepted. This, too, is mildly reminiscent of the former British Raj in India. Sticking out like sore thumbs, Adam and Eve are the essence of cool in a world too sour to accept them as they are and too undeserving of their gifts.

Their reunion with the sickly "Kit" Marlowe (the result of his also imbibing some "bad blood") is cut short by the playwright's unfortunate demise. His death sends the brooding pair into a funk- let's end it all now, they consider, one last hurrah before the fall. Lucifer and his bride will take a final plunge into the abyss. It's not so bad after all. The world is doomed anyway.

But before they breathe their last, Adam and Eve are drawn to a fabulous Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, and her band performing at a local nightclub. Adam hopes like hell that Yasmine does not become famous. She's "too good" for that - and he should know.

For a fitting conclusion, Eve spends the remainder of their fortune on an ancient oud, a lute-like instrument that becomes a parting gift from her to Adam. At this point, they spot a young couple smooching on a bench. They suddenly decide to "turn" the lovers into one of their own, a sensible solution to their predicament and similar, in its way, to what the detestable Lestat did with Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (much to Louis's regret, however).

To preserve what is left of their universe, Adam and Eve will give birth to a new generation of "upper-class" folks who will lord it over the rest. Since vampires are incapable of reproducing in the, er, usual biological manner, their decision to turn the Moroccan couple is clearly the logical one. Alluding to the film's title, if and when Eve and Adam eventually "die" of whatever causes overcome them, only the Moroccan lovers will be left alive.

As far as we can recall, the cinema world's last romantic couple, Gomez and Morticia Addams (with American actors Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston), from the tongue-in-cheek pen of American cartoonist Charles Addams, was turned, in 1993, into an adorably macabre, dark-humored film feature by director and former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.

In Jarmusch's case, the couple in question happens to be Brits - hundreds-of-years-old Brits at that, with several lifetimes of baggage to their sum and credit. Sophistication with pointy teeth. They love to talk and talk and talk, one of the few film pairs in recent years who actually enjoy the pleasure of each other's company. Their highly elevated conversations encompass just about everything under the sun (or moon, as the case may be), the hope of civilization as we've come to know it.

May their sun never set. And may they never experience a cinematic death. We'll "stake" our life on it. (Ouch!)

[Trivia Endnote: Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston were reunited two years later in Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015), a mildly curious stab at gory Hammer Horror flicks of the late 1950s to 1960s. Alas, Crimson Peak is more moody than shocking, and ergo less impressive than the British studio's classic output. Interesting, too, in that Del Toro's film re-purposes Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in surprisingly obvious ways.]

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

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