by Tony Dayoub
A black velvet sky full of stars fills the screen. As the credits appear, the distinctive opening chords of rockabilly standard "Funnel of Love" start playing and the stars begin to streak in a clockwise direction. The image dissolves into an overhead shot of the song's 45 spinning clockwise on a turntable. Then a succession of dissolves and each time the camera spins and spirals ("...down, down, down..." as Wanda Jackson sings) closer into Eve (Tilda Swinton), a pale, white-tressed woman dressed in Eastern attire laying on a large bed, and Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a ghostly, raven-haired man splayed across a couch in more recognizable Western clothes, a guitar in hand. This alluring introduction sets the tone for Jim Jarmusch's most mesmerizing film in quite some time, Only Lovers Left Alive.
Eve and Adam are vampires... and quite polite ones at that. But Only Lovers is no horror movie. Its two leads are not monsters out to turn everyone into bloodsuckers or eradicate the human race. Adam is a musician who has secretly fed renowned compositions to the likes of Schubert and appreciates lo-fi technology with graceful design elements, collecting rare guitars from his seclusion through his dim broker Ian (Anton Yelchin). Adam's funk has been growing for decades because of how "zombies"—people too scared to really live life with some gusto—have begun to squelch those who strive to leave their mark on the world. The practical, forward looking Eve, enjoys the efficiencies of the newest devices technology has to offer. But she is also a literary groupie, soaking up Adam's recollections of Byron and Shelley and packing suitcases full of only books when she decides to reunite with him in order to cheer him up.
Though Eve lives in Tangier and Adam in Detroit, they are husband and wife whose love spans both oceans and ages. Yet, as much as it is an immortal romance, Only Lovers is also Jarmusch's elegiac ode to humanity and it's resilience. Indeed, they love life and living so much that its implied they became vampires simply to extend the experience. They refuse to murder people for the blood that sustains them, instead going through great pains to obtain pollutant-free plasma through black market means. This reverence for life appears to be handed down from Kit (John Hurt), an ancient mentor who Only Lovers hints might be a universal literary icon... or at least the lesser known writer who may have hid behind that icon's ghost-authorship.
It's tough not to see Jarmusch in Eve and Adam, especially in contrast to Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve's impish sister. Ava shows up midway through the film, a wild-child with a constant urge to disrupt. She hasn't seen the two in over 80 years, but that's too soon as far as Adam is concerned. When she tells them she's spent her time in LA, it may be Adam that responds, "Great, zombie central." But it's Jarmusch's voice that comes through.
In Eve and Adam, the freewheeling Jarmusch has created two very specific iterations of the same kind of outsiders that comment on life in his other films. They only come out at night. They dress like rock stars, albeit timeless ones. They are classically educated but prolong their relevance by being open to the new. Metaphorically, Eve and Adam are the closest any of the filmmaker's alter egos have come to resembling Jarmusch himself. The white-haired, black-clad filmmaker has always struck many as a bit of a night creature himself, one who seems more comfortable with the dark serving as a hidden refuge and a vantage point from which to continue observing the frustrating progression/regression of humankind.
Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's clearest declaration that he is not a misanthrope. But he loves humanity in all of its endeavors (arts, science, etc.) way too much to be so close to "zombies" trying to sabotage our momentum forward. Only Lovers Left Alive's ferociously endearing couple each find value in both the obscure and the popular, the old and the new. When they go out for a drive through the dying Detroit, Eve cuts through Adam's lamentations about the city to assure him that it will return. He asks her if she wants to see the Motown Museum. She responds, "I was always a Stax girl myself." With Only Lovers Left Alive Jarmusch says, who needs to choose?
Only Lovers Left Alive is playing at the 51st New York Film Festival at 3pm Saturday, October 12th at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.