It seems likely that anybody inclined to seek out Only Lovers Left Alive will agree most enthusiastically with its sentiment. This is a film about our once-rich Western culture’s steady erosion after sustained lethargy and indifference, about those last remaining pillars of the high guard fighting valiantly on behalf of the as-yet-unspoiled cool. Well, who could help but sympathize? Here Jim Jarmusch divides the world, cleanly and not un-self-consciously, between a vaunted vampiric literati and the zombified masses whose noxious influence they’re resigned to forever defend against, and then it asks that you declare your allegiance one way or the other. You either appreciate the likes of Buster Keaton, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nicholas Ray, Joe Strummer, and David Foster Wallace—each of whom are alluded to admiringly throughout the film, among many more—or else you appreciate…I don’t know, reality television or video games or something. The film is less clear on what exponents of popular culture the undesirables deign to consume instead. In any case, the boundaries of good taste have been defined, and you’d better make sure you’re within them.
This, of course, is hardly the first time Jarmusch has made cool both the subject and object of a film. It has always been a pose to strike, a concept to embody, an essence to seize upon. The difference is that his characters have never before sought to articulate the importance of their own sensibility. Jarmusch’s characters are very often cool, but it’s always above all an effortless cool: Their tastes are not cultivated, their style isn’t affected, and more than anything they proceed through life only dimly aware that the world around them is any different. Many of the people who populate his films are too taciturn to speak candidly about their interests (like Isaach De Bankole’s globetrotter in The Limits of Control, primped and impeccably besuited, but without a trace of pretense about him), though even those who do occasionally mention arts and culture do so completely in earnest, as if they were describing the weather. Jarmusch’s people are Japanese tourists, New Orleans pimps, Finlandian cabbies, urban samurais, psychedelic cowboys, modern-day Don Juans. They are the unknowing representatives of a dying breed: the naturally cool.
To this likeable populace Only Lovers Left Alive adds an atypical pair: our very own Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), undead forebears with a taste for great books and blood. Jarmusch, predictably, has no more interest in writing or directing a traditional vampire picture than most of us doubtless have in watching another one, and with the exception of a nocturnal schedule and the occasional plasmatic indulgence, the supernatural dimension of this story operates more or less on a metaphorical level: the eternal vampire as the ultimate world-weary hipster and all that. Their cool isn’t quite so natural. Alas, it seems a few centuries ensconced in the cultural elite have made snobs out of Adam and Eve, and they waste no opportunity reminiscing about their halcyon days of hanging about with Byron (“a pompous bore”) and ghostwriting an adagio for Schubert. As for today, there’s scarcely a genius left alive, and it’s all that our put-upon heroes can do to bemoan fallen standards and withdraw into themselves.
Fortunately, this in and of itself proves enjoyable, at least for us: As is so often the case in Jarmusch’s films, simply spending time in the company of his creations is engrossing enough to sustain a feature. There’s a decadence of sound and image here, too, that’s well worth poring over, particularly when it comes to any one of the several standalone musical sequences. Adam, having long ago moved on from the classically symphonic, now prefers a kind of psychedelic drone, producing trance-like feedback loops of guitar tones and noise that sound a bit like Sunn O))). Much like Boris’s Pink set the mood for The Limits of Control, Adam’s constant noodling—actually the sounds of Jarmusch’s own band SQURL—defines the world of the film.
Similarly appealing is the film’s conception of contemporary Detroit, where Adam holes up in a decaying downtown mansion and to which Eve is duly beckoned. Its ruins serve as both a loving tribute to the city’s once-thriving culture and a bitter reminder that everything around us will inevitably rust and crumble. Jarmusch has always been attuned to the pleasures offered by offbeat urban centers, and his affection for this place is likewise evident, lingering over its warehouses and factories, its alleyways and rock clubs, much of it in disrepair but boasting ample character in compensation. The city’s reckoning seems like proof of Adam and Eve’s conviction that the end of culture is nigh. But it also proves that the world sure looks beautiful in decline.