Unusually pale virtuoso

Łukasz Kowalczyk · 18 May 2014
Jim Jarmusch’s newest film made film critics fear, that Jim was infected with an embarrassing disease for an artist. The disease of wanting to be liked by a broad audience. Proof? He made a film about vampires at the apogee of the epidemic of this specific genre.

The very fact of the vampire epidemic and its power are undisputable. The beginnings of the epidemic reach the time of yet another rebirth of Dracula („Dracula” [2000]; „ Dracula II: Ascension” [2003]; „ Dracula III: Legacy” [2005]) and cashing profits from the success of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” saga by Hollywood (since 2008 five books from this series were filmed, to the delight of American teenage girls). Many high- and mid-budget films were produced within the genre. Vampire exploitation cinema was, of course, revitalised and thanks to that we can enjoy „Lesbian Vampire Killers” and similar films. Finally, epidemic reached a Hollywood-outsider Tim Burton („Dark Shadows” [2012]) or even Johna Cassavetesa („Kiss of the damned” [2012]). Producers were delighted to give up to the trend and keep showing constantly popular “True blood” (since 2008) and “Vampire diaries” (since 2009), “Lair” (2007-2009) about gay-vampire group or a charming “My Babysitter’s a Vampire” (2011). It was all inevitable. But Jarmusch?

Bitten and biting

Jarmusch’s new picture had its premiere in Cannes. Right after that international (reviews in „Variety”, „Hollywood Reporter” and „Guardian”) and Polish film critics (Urszula Lipińska’s review in May’s „Ekran” magazine) diagnosed symptoms of a bite.

Last week, “Only lovers left alive” had its Polish premiere during the American Film Festiwal in Wrocław, but it will be screened in Polish cinemas from February 2014. There is still time for vaccination and verbal prevention! Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm! Jarmusch is safe and sound. There should be no worries, that he is trying to meet the taste of a wide audience, even by choosing a mainstream genre. There is little liking and respect for an average human in his works.

Main characters in Jarmusch’s films were always biting an average man, down to earth towner lacking artistic skills and of narrow mindset, petty to the limits of evil or even beyond them. In his early films, the main character was biting only verbally, using irony and contempt, not picking a real fight with the world. On top of all that the character being a delicate (or at least inapt) outsider who evokes the feeling of sympathy mixed with pity. The “Dead Man” was a breakthrough in this matter. William Blake throws away his accountant-style shirt cuffs and wakes up from a trance (falling in another trance at the same time) and becomes dangerous. Then it all went on from there. The avenger-outsider from „Ghost Dog”, the follower of Bushido who is superior to the masses, wasn’t biting, he was simply killing using his Katana and gun. The outsider-killer from „Limits of Control” was strangling his victims in complete silence, behaving ascetically and not using any kind of weapon to kill. Murray from “Broken Flowers” doesn’t suit the pattern? All right, he is not exterminating anyone, but his visits are like invasions in emotional aspect. Rubble and ash is all that remains after realizing how pointless and shallow is the everyday wheel-spinning of life.

In my opinion the fact that the main characters from “Only lovers let alive” are vampires was inevitable, with respect to aforementioned Jarmusch’s logic. Cause how many more films about virtuoso killers who are more ethical than their victims could he make, keeping it realistic? It is easier with a vampire. A vampire is not taking anyone’s orders, alienation and superiority over an average human are written in his DNA. Vampires are bloody effective, intelligent and beautiful. Vampires do not feel empathy. Vampires kill to live. Vampires literally feed themselves with the life of others. Moreover, what is most important – the vampire film genre presents them as naturally subtle and immortal creatures and hence, par excellence, artists. A vampire crowns the work. Or maybe he is rather a back bone. We will see, what Jarmusch will put on that spine and if it truly is a film about vampires.

The first couple

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives in Detroit in an abandoned industrial district. Hidden in a ruined Victorian-style house, he surrounds himself with many wonderful trinkets and gadgets – from musical instruments, through profession music recording equipment to innovative and pretty tools of his own making. He composes music of such beauty and originality that his fans are determined to find him even if he hides in his isolation and covers his tracks. He has some experience in composing music – for example he has written a piece for string Quartet for Schuberta – a little piece, “only” Adagio. On one of the walls in a dark room in his house hang pictures of Kafka, Byron, Wilde, Shelley, Einstein. Old friends. Zombies. They were talented, as for humans, and pretty active in arts and sciences and thanks to all that – acceptable. However, generally humans are pitiful living corpses. They are dead during their lives, lazy and devious. They are destroying everything that was given them to take care of – the planet and one another. Wars, environmental disasters, YouTube and vulgarity on top of that. How to live? Adam is depressed. Adam, just like Jan Potocki (the legend has it that he killed himself with a silver bullet, thinking he is a werewolf), prepares a bullet. Not silver, a wooden bullet instead.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) receives information about poor mental state of her loved one. She lives in Tangier, where she spends time dancing, taking care of her books (beautiful editions, in dozen languages) and remembering good old times with her vampire friend Chris Marlowe (John Hurt). She is a muse rather than an artist, but for sure she is a virtuoso and an aesthete, like other vampires. Chris is old now, but he is still writing a lot and tutors an Arabic student in the secrets of poetry. He is also bitter. It is hard not to understand his bitterness – old friend, zombie Shakespeare appropriated a play written by Chris. The play was called “Hamlet”.

Eve, right after getting to know that Adam is not a good shape, takes two huge suitcases full of books (already read) with her pale slim hands and takes a first-class flight to the US. In Detroit, Adam and Eve, are not reading the books, but they are having adventurous time (which they experience slowly, as it is the right way for the superior creatures), which make them to go further with their journey, but I will not discuss this further here.

I will not discuss it not only not to kill the pleasure of watching the film, but also because these adventures are not too important. It is not the plot that makes this a good film. I hope you don’t expect that Adam, Eve or Jim will pander to the common tastes and surprise spectators.

Expulsion from the paradise, or a haunted vampire

The plot only affirms in many ways, the expectations we have from the beginning of the film. Vampires do not like flowing modernity. They don’t feel good in a world, where physical beauty of things has decreasing importance and an intensive fight for popularity, emotional wildness and constant availability – increasing.

They are suffering – one time they become bitter, another they become melancholic. Eventually, they get ill and lose one another (like Eve’s sister – Ava) if they try to compete with the world. But there is an essential problem. Due to zombies’ carelessness, vampires are left with nothing to eat. Human blood is contaminated. It is not surprising – zombies polluted the environment, they eat rubbish food and have an unhealthy lifestyle. Sucking blood became unhealthy and risky for a delicate vampire organism. The lovers, just like other vampires are saved by a selected blood type, specially prepared and delivered by well-paid human servants, but this source is not infinite. Creativity of their subtle souls and minds, their only pleasure, possessed by the light-liking humans, is useless anyway. It directly implied within the plot, but it is probably a vampire fin de siècle. This noble species is becoming extinct. There is no place for them among us anymore.

A portrait of an artist in old age

An interpretation of a vampire’s figure and condition seems obvious. This what constitutes the foundations and condition of a creation became contaminated and shallow. Recipients – those eternal parasites extracting from the creation of the superior beings, from the world created by the superior ones – instead of showing respect, they disregard all those goods, they are disturbing or even haunting.

The only way is to moving to the shadow, it is Acmeism, using the treasures of the past, putting together bits of what is left, remembering old times and creating a secret network of true virtuosos who can exchange their fluids only among one another. Finally, stagnating or concentrating selectively on beauty and disregarding the ugliness which covers it. It is no wonder that sometimes an artist in a difficult situation will bite someone.

Maybe it is not so obvious? Aren’t modern authors diminished and beastly? Weren’t they put aside from the prime reality and disempowered because they were addicted to power? Did they lose they promethean force? Little gods addicted to their victims. They are “cold turkey”, they crave for “pure blood” and if they don’t get it – they die. They are wandering with no purpose, admiring inanimate objects’ beauty and they are incapable of starting a dialogue with those for whom they create. Artists are the parasites – they suck our blood and still they are grumpy. Still, they are not satisfied. Prometheus brought fire to mankind and modern luminaries are hiding in the shadows, waiting for their unaware victims.

I don’t know, I have no idea what is true. After seeing the film I don’t think Jarmusch knows either. What I know is that he can make a technically excellent, artistically sophisticated film with wonderful music (Jozef van Wissem) and pictures. The film has a constant, slow pace showing Tildy Swinton’s ephemeral character (she is an expert in playing extraordinary non-human characters) and it skillfully plays with the conventionality. Full of intertextual references and subtle humour. A film for a connoisseur. I am sure Adam and Eve would like it.


„ Only Lovers Left Alive”, directed by Jim Jarmusch, France, Germany, USA, UK, Cyprus 2013.