As movie conceits go, the vampire comedy Only Lovers Left Alive, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, tells more about contemporary cultural attitudes than Wes Anderson’s period comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, the most acclaimed movie so far this year. Neither filmmaker pretends to have much to do with the real world; both make subjective fantasies (Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Anderson’s Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) that eschew political commentary yet are expressions — in fact, the privileged essence — of downward and upward class aspirations.
Only Lovers Left Alive and The Grand Budapest Hotel both seem to sum up their directors’ previous personal preoccupations with middle-class license. But Jarmusch achieves a kind of refinement in this spectral, modern-day La Bohème. It’s a love story about two centuries-old vampires, musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and demimondaine Eve (Tilda Swinton), who haunt the drug dens of Tangiers and Detroit’s vast stretches of urban decay – spaces known to exude contemporary anomie and, for Jarmusch, comic inertia.
Of the many hipster movies made by Jarmusch, the self-appointed heir to the 1950s Beat movement and father to Gen X slackers, Only Lovers blends his social dissent and lackadaisical rebellion with the entire Boho-left gestalt to produce a collection of perfectly expressive pop: symbols (fetishized antique rock guitars); metaphors (bloodbanks supplying druggy contraband); and satire (vampirism as the ultimate cool existence). Much can be learned about this narcissistic subculture from Jarmusch’s slow, dry, self-infatuated stoner humor. He exposes the subcult’s flaws, and its repugnance, even as he attempts to glamorize it — like a pothead pirouetting his way through a D.U.I. test.
Indeed, Only Lovers features several striking passages. A book-packing montage shows comically disparate titles as Adam and Eve hold on to significant mementos when moving house. In a blood-drinking set-piece, the vampires zone out like heroin addicts (or nod in forlorn Modigliani-like absinthe postures). And a traveling sequence parallels the two ghouls’ nighttime street cruisings while they are an ocean apart. These confirm Jarmusch’s greater technical accomplishment over Wes Anderson’s delirious combination of miniatures, live action, and assorted perspectives. Jarmusch points to hipsters’ root identity in literature, music, and sunglasses to convey their empty pilgrimage, seeking (with full, conscious irony) a soulless, anesthetized state.
That that state is exemplified by the zombification of a once-vital American city shows an intolerable fascination for decline, redolent of bohemia’s social complacency. A key scene between Adam and a blood-smuggling medic (Jeffrey Wright) contains the film’s only white-black racial encounter. When Adam insists that their “mutual jeopardy makes me feel safe,” it evokes the unequal class confidence of innumerable drug-buyer exchanges at the heart of hipster bohemian life. This explains the film’s decadent tour of Tangiers (referencing exotic guru Paul Bowles) and of Detroit. Jarmusch depicts the Motor City through “ruin porn,” an infatuation with social breakdown that is indifferent to economic and political explanations or solutions.
Such hypocrisy becomes unmistakable when Adam suggests visiting the Motown Museum and Eve demurs, saying “I’ve always been a Stax kind of girl.” White bohos draw a distinction between Motown/Stax as diluted/authentic forms of black American pop music — sheer, unsympathetic condescension yet as cold-bloodedly self-satisfying as cultural parasitism can be.
When Eve dances to the oldie “Trapped by This Thing Called Love” by Detroit R&B singer Denise Lasalle, yet marvels at the sight of white rocker Jack White’s Detroit home, it is the essence of boho duplicity. Not since his White Negro movie Ghost Dog has Jarmusch himself been as duplicitous. He can’t seem to help it.
By portraying hipsters as vampires, Jarmusch quasi-ambivalently acknowledges the current fashion for “darkness” and its inevitable doom. “Hip” was always a measure of style superiority, from the time of Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” (1957) to the permutations of San Francisco hippies and New York East Village punks. So Jarmusch pits his ever-so-stylish vampires (they’re junkie-thin and British!) against what used to be called “squares,” here termed “zombies” — a brand fashionable among today’s naïve pop consumers who idealize their disaffection in books, movies, and TV shows about the undead while yet resisting Christian moral precepts.
Old Dracula movies toyed with good and evil, but Jarmusch is past that; his Adam and Eve deride godly morality, as in several weak name-dropping gags (Dr. Faust, Dr. Caligari, Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan). These esthetes take credit for all cultural and scientific history; their aging fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (played by John Hurt) still resents ghost-writing for “that illiterate zombie philistine” Shakespeare. As Jarmusch’s title pun suggests, this vampire movie is not about the fear of mortality or sex — in fact, when his Adam and Eve are not bloodthirsty or horny, they’re suicidal — but it’s really about being culturally posh. Hiddleston’s Adam shows eloquent shades of depression while Swinton’s loping elegance and polished enunciation epitomize Jarmusch’s fascination with avant-garde chic: Eve’s swanky Morticia in dingy-white leather and dreads updates Constance Cummings’ famous monochrome ghost in David Lean and Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
Swinton’s hauteur hasn’t been used this effectively since her role as an emotive robot in Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death. Lately an icon for both artsiness and progressivism, Swinton inadvertently exposes bohemia’s damnable hypocrisy. Her androgynous, on-the-verge-of-decadence beauty pushes Jarmusch into further revealing the hipster’s insufferable exploitation of society’s failing — perhaps the ultimate example of cultural vampirism.
That seems to be the nature of hipster bohemia, and it never dies. Revealing how self-indulgence has always been a feature of social collapse — occupying ruined spaces as bohemia’s pampered playground — surprisingly demonstrates how hipsters slum unconscientiously and then romanticize it. This fact makes Only Lovers Left Alive accidentally more powerful than the fancifying of the fall of Europe in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Jarmusch’s subjective politics turn out to very local — and, finally, useless.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.