The blood is the life… and I can’t wait to lie down.
by Thom Yee
Over the years, I’ve found that the biggest difference between what we see on screen and what we live in real life aren’t things like story, significant action, or inciting incidents. The details might differ, the circumstances may be less extraordinary, but if you look (and sometimes strain), most of our lives are actually full of those things. No, the real difference is character. Screenplays eliminate redundancies, strengthen those remaining to the point of obvious importance, and leave their main characters in a place where they’ve changed. The people in movies and TV shows serve the themes and tell us something about their world. They’re distinct and important and completely embody who they’re supposed to be, be they mentors, horrible bosses, or favourite uncles. And those are all incredibly rare people to find in real life. In real life, most people are forgettable and tend to blend in with everyone else. In real life, most of us have no connection to each other and we don’t know what that person or those people are there for. In fact, in real life, most of us might be better off without so many other people around.
In real life, most of us have no idea what other people are doing, even the people who live one door away on the same floor as us.
Jim Marmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is obviously a character piece where, truth be told, almost nothing happens. There’s a lot of lying around, a lot of conveyed lethargy, and a lot of quiet contemplation. After some basic setup, it literally takes the film its first twenty-five minutes to show our two main characters getting a meal. Sure, we learn a little about their world, but nothing really happens. Overall, the film’s very deliberately paced and very slow, but it never really drags, and that’s a direct result of its characters, every one unique, every one symbolic, and every one fully realized.
They’re also all vampires.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has lived for hundreds if not thousands of years. He’s a vampire. Worse yet, he’s a musician. Having influenced some of the greatest musical artists of all time, he now spends his nights languishing in his desolate home in Detroit, surrounding himself with the rarefied artifacts of better days — classic guitars, old stereo equipment, and centuries-old furniture. Withdrawing more and more into himself at the sight of what modern-day humanity has come to, it’s not until his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) arrives (after the two have unspecified years apart) that Adam begins to feel a spark in his [after] life.
And then not much happens.
It goes without saying that Adam is more than just a recluse. Seemingly living off a small fortune, perhaps earned through his past musical work, Adam’s almost the worst vampire we could find in terms of being introduced to this world. He’s a downer who takes himself too seriously, and at first almost wears his depression like a well-worn housecoat. He refers to everyone else as “zombies” in the same immediately dismissive and oversimplified manner that people today use the word “sheeple.” To some extent, one assumes this is typical of all of the vampires, and it’s not until were introduced to his wife Eve that we discover how truly gifted Adam is and how much bigger and more meaningful their lives have been.
Eve, on the other hand, is almost eternally hopeful, though without a hint of naivete. Though the two clearly love each other and clearly come from a similar perspective, she’s not at all the vision of self-indulgent depression that Adam is. Initially residing in Tangier for reasons not fully explored (though one imagines it has something to do with her relationship with the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe [also a vampire, played by John Hurt]), she returns to Adam when she finds him in need. Though it’s never clarified why the two are apart in the first place, but it’s not hard to imagine the two spending potentially years apart as nothing more than a typical couple couple taking separate vacations when measuring their lives over centuries. As the two explore the slums and vacancies of Detroit — former Motor City, former Rock City, and now largely abandoned — there’s an at once unbearable and yet welcome melancholy as the film takes shape and forms one of its only themes: this isn’t the first time things have looked so bad.
During Adam’s time away from Eve, Ian has acted as Adam’s faithful and seemingly only companion. Played by Anton Yelchin, an actor I always picture as European due to his time playing Pavel Chekov (even though that role and accent was a deliberate parody), Ian seems to be a bit of an idiot in the vein of your typical boot-licking lackey. He seems to almost worship Adam, to almost want to be more like him, but there’s still a little bit more under the surface of the character. Obviously there’s the question of how he’s able to procure the singular items that Adam asks for, indicating that he’s at least moderately resourceful, but there are also subtle hints that he’s getting a little bit more out of their relationship than the apparent wads of cash. He’s certainly no antagonistic undercurrents to the character, but you’re left wondering if he’s the idiot sycophant that he seems to be or if he’s just playing that role.
It’s not until the arrival of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s younger sister, that Only Lovers Left Alive really finds any forward progress. With an almost sinister air ushering in her arrival as she separately appears in Adam and Eve’s individual dreams, Ava winds up being really nothing more than Eve’s annoying little sister, and it’s actually endearing to see how she affects the almost statuesque poses that Adam and Eve have been able to take until this point. Adam hates her, ostensibly for an obliquely referenced occurrence in Paris nearly one hundred years ago, but mostly just because he can’t deal with her enthusiasm, while Eve loves her the way older sisters should. Unfortunately for Adam and Eve, she’s also irresponsible, her actions perhaps the only inciting incident in the movie, as our protagonists are forced to abandon their home in Detroit and return to Tangier.
Generally one of the most fascinating aspects of vampire fiction is the mythology surrounding the characters. Whether illuminating the scope and scale of our characters or establishing the boundaries of what our characters are capable of, it’s thought-provoking and often just fun to find the world-building that movies present. Only Lovers Left Alive, however, remains almost gleefully free of such explorations. These are really just people, even if they’ve lived through extraordinary times and circumstances, and even though there are hints dropped all over the place, it’s largely up to the viewer to draw any concrete conclusions about this world and these people. All we really seem to know for sure is that they only go out at night and that they drink blood. For the most part, they procure blood through more passive and virtuous methods rather than more obvious and invasive means. We don’t dwell on vampire traditions like a lack of mirrored reflections or the meaning of the cross, and if you weren’t playing attention, you could almost watch this movie without noticing these people are vampires at all.
The most telling aspect of each of our vampire protagonists is the detail with which they speak of the things they’ve surrounded themselves with. It’s clear they’re all connoisseurs of any number of relatively esoteric topics — music, art, nature, literature, engineering — and while that may be a natural consequence of living for hundreds of years and actually having seen these things through their development, it’s almost refreshing when one imagines how board and disillusioned these people could easily have become during the course of their prolonged lives.
On the other hand, boredom is a feeling that easily creeps in, even for the most ardent arthouse movie-goer. Given that its canvas is measured in the hundreds of years and all over the Earth, very few hard questions are asked, the only profundity to be found in the observation that we [humanity] are killing ourselves, and that’s about as far from an original observation as you can find. As I said early on, this is a character piece, and if you’re not enthralled with these characters, if you don’t find their stories fascinating, and if you don’t find yourself laughing in the back of your skull at every tiny little thing they say, you’re probably going to get at least a bit bored, you may become disillusioned, and you’ll probably feel anything but refreshed.
The thing about Only Lovers Left Alive is that nothing really happens. It’s a film content to wallow in its own filth, and it only really finds value in its tone and the mood with which you choose to watch it. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty big waste of time, and it really doesn’t ask anything profound or deeply meaningful. It’s just kind of there, with a carriage that suggests you appreciate it more than showing you why. It’s totally reliant on its characters to carry the story into anything meaningful, and if you don’t like them, you may as well leave the door unopened. For me, I am glad I opened that door and found these people.
Just not very glad.
Only Lovers Left Alive final score: 7