Everlasting Love: Jim Jarmusch’s Beautiful Only Lovers Left Alive
How often do you walk away from a vampire film and think, ‘Well, that was really lovely’? I’d wager never. Yet that is exactly the feeling I left with after the screening of Only Lovers Left Alive at the New York Film Festival.
True to its title, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, even a comedy. It’s a film about Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two ancient lovers separated by an ocean who come together in Detroit as the world seems to be coming apart. Their lives, already fragile, are thrown into chaos when Eve’s potent, impulsive younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives. There are fangs, there is some blood, but what this gorgeous story is not is a horror film.
“For me, it was obviously not a horror movie, as most vampire films are,” Jarmusch said at the press conference after the film, explaining why one of the most seminal figures in American independent cinema would take on a genre that included Edward and Bella and the increasingly lunatic shenanigans of True Blood. “I think it’s just the overview that it allowed, because they’ve been alive so long, to show a love story that spans that amount of time. After all, this is just a little character study, we just happen to be observing these characters, who happen to be very strange, and very interesting to me. To be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time was really attractive to me.”
Romantic love between vampires (or between vampires and humans) can often be melodramatic to the point of absurdity. Or camp. Yet Swinton and Hiddleston’s romance feels true. Adam and Eve have been lovers and best friends for five centuries—there is no story they haven’t already told each other, a million times, and this is made to feel like actual fact in the film, not fantasy.
“That was something that Jim, Tom and I talked about a lot before we started shooting,” Swinton said, “and we were all so clear that what we wanted was a couple who really felt familiar, familiar in the way that you do long after you just fancy each other and end up in bed together for a long time—these are people who have talked constantly, about everything…so we talked about the texture of a really long friendship.”
This is a romance and friendship that takes place exclusively at night. The film is consistently beautiful throughout. Jarmusch and his cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, designed a sumptuous looking, softly lit film that captures the crumbling grandeur of its two principal locations of Detroit and Tangier. They did this digitally.
“It’s the first time I worked with digital photography,” Jarmusch said, and then launched into a litany of complaints about the medium. “I don’t like digital for several reasons; I don’t like depth of field, it’s very deep; I don’t like exterior daylight and skin tones, it’s not appealing to me, and these weren’t problems because we don’t have any exterior daylight shots, and we’re shooting interior in very low lights. We’re shooting with light bulbs and LED squares, very, very minimal, so we didn’t have that depth of field problem. So for the photography, I find, it was lit very delicately.”
There might not be another narrative film this year, or in any recent year, that makes finer use of the crumbling grandeur of Detroit. Jarmusch, born in Ohio, has loved the city since childhood. This affection comes across as he positions Adam’s musical lair (his house is filled with instruments and recording equipment) in a beautiful derelict house on the outskirts of the city.
“Detroit is a city I really deeply love,” Jarmusch said. “When I was a child [Detroit] was almost mythological, the Paris of the Midwest. And now what’s happening with Detroit is very tragic and sad. I was drawn to it, visually and historically, for its musical culture, industrial culture, and post-industrial visual feeling.” So here is where one of our lovers is situated, Adam the reclusive 500-year old musical genius, never leaving his decaying home save for trips to a nearby hospital where he pays Dr. Watson (Jeffery Wright) for canisters of O-negative.
Our other lover, the fabulous Eve, lives in the gritty, arresting Tangier. One of the first images we see is of her thick tangled mane of blonde hair as she lies in her canopied bed. She looks royal, regal, and a little bit feral. The very first thought that came into my head was, ‘My god that hair.’ There is a reason the eye is drawn to it.
“The hair thing was really interesting,” Jarmusch said. “I wanted them to have wild hair, I wanted them to look partly animalistic, even behave like half animals and half very sophisticated humans. So we were trying to make these wigs, trying on different things in Cologne, Germany, working with Gerd (Zeiss), our hair and makeup designer. And we just weren’t getting an interesting texture, and we were looking at different textures of hair in photographs online, and Tilda said, ‘Well you keep saying the animal thing is missing, why are we just looking at humans, let’s start looking at animal fur.’ So we started looking at animals, and different monkeys and llamas and different textures of fur and hair. Then Gerd said that he had, in the past, mixed some goat and yak fur into human hair to make it thicker, and Tilda was like, ‘Let’s try that!’ So in the end, the wigs for John Hurt, Tilda, Tom and Mia were made of a certain percentage human hair mixed with goat and yak.”
As wild as Adam and Eve are, they are thoughtful, even moral creatures compared to most of the vampires in film history (and to Ava, it should be noted). We are in a world in which neither Adam or Eve feasts on humans to live—they get their blood the way people get their drugs, through connections. Adam gets his through his Dr. Watson (every name in the film has a literary pedigree), and Eve through her good friend Marlowe (John Hurt), who has a connection to the “good stuff” from a doctor in Paris. As we watch Eve rend through the twisting streets of Tangier at night to meet Marlowe, we know why we’d shoot Tilda Swinton walking through those ancient alleyways—she looks so cool—but why did Jarmusch pick Tangier for Eve?
“A previous script was set in Rome and Detroit,” he said. “Tangier is one of my favorite places on the planet, and I just wanted to shoot there. And it seemed like the type of place that would draw Eve to it…it’s separated from European culture in a way. It’s not a Christian culture, it’s not even an alcohol culture. It’s a hashish culture, so it’s a very different feeling there.”
Jarmusch added several distinct touches of his own to the longstanding lore of vampire mythology. “Mythology in vampire films is a cumulative thing,” he says, “For example, having fangs, I think, only appeared in a Mexican vampire film in the 1950s. All of these things get added in, like garlic, or you must be invited over the threshold, or the cross, or the holy water—all of these things get added in arbitrarily by certain authors who choose this form. So we wanted to add something in there.” You’ll note we’ve left out exactly what was added in—it’ll be your task to spot it.
There are also many very funny plot elements in which it’s clear Jarmusch thought long and hard about what it might mean to live for hundreds, even thousands of years. Think about the people you would get to meet, the artists whose paths you would cross, the amount of culture you would experience. Lovers is a witty vampire film, starring one of the greatest living actresses, made by one of those most well regarded independent film directors, shot entirely on location in Detroit and Tangier. It all seems like a no brainer, yet it too nearly a decade to get made.
“It was seven years or eight years or more that I wanted to make this film, or a variation of it," Jarmusch said. "And it was written with Tilda in mind, from the very beginning. And whenever this production would fall apart, or we’d lose financing, and I’d just be ready to give up, and think ‘Okay I’m just going on to something else, this is a bad sign,’ Tilda would invariably say, ‘No, this is a good sign, this means we’re not ready yet, all the pieces aren’t in place yet.’ And she was always so optimistic and reflective in the way of Eve, with the kind of spirit of Eve, that I could not give up this project.”