The following review is one giant SPOILER.
There is a cryptic scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive where vampire lovers Adam and Eve notice a few small Amanita muscaria mushrooms growing in the back yard of Adam’s factory loft. They seem somewhat out of place and out of time; the fungi, they note, are out of season. Eve talks to them like they’re people. She and Adam share a knowing glance and leave them be. We don’t see them again.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a rock and roll movie that only Jarmusch could make. An atmosphere of cool apathy permeates this story about Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a depressed, nosferatic rock star genius living in the husk of Detroit city. He spends his days accumulating vintage instruments, avoiding impending fame like the plague, contemplating suicide, and drinking illicit blood bank donations with all the ceremony and satisfaction of a wealthy heroin addict.
His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier where her vampire friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) keeps her supplied with good blood. We wonder why Adam and Eve live on opposite sides of the world, and their unique situation dawns on us; being immortal, their concept of time might make years apart seem like a weekend separation.
Seeing Adam’s depression over Skype, Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. When she arrives there is some relief; the couple feed together, listening to records, catching up on each others’ age-old wisdom and isolation (Adam has remained off the grid with a Tesla-inspired generator he constructed piecemeal in his back yard).
Their relationship with humanity is strained. They refer to humans as “zombies,” implying unthinking consumers who lack the scope for real creativity. Eve is regarded with suspicion wherever she goes and the only human company Adam can stand is Ian, a fan of Adam’s music who tracks down vintage guitars and whatever else Adam needs no questions asked (i.e. a bullet made of the hardest wood available, with which Adam contemplates ending it all).
But their relationship with humanity seems to be necessary. Adam has been creating music for ages, but cannot own up to it. A life of fame would expose his immortality, so he’s been getting the work out via “zombies,” human conduits who take all the fame and the slack. We also learn that Christopher Marlowe was the creative force behind some of history’s great literature, including Shakespeare.
Enter Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s mischievous little sister who immediately gets on Adam’s nerves. They put her up, share their stash of blood, and even let her talk them into a night on the town. After a rock show, Adam, Eve, Ava and Ian travel back to the loft and you just know Ava wants to get into trouble. When Adam and Eve wake the next night, they find Ian’s corpse.
With his only human connection severed, Adam decides to leave his loft full of instruments to go to Tangier with Eve. They’re dangerously low on blood but counting on Marlowe to hook them up when they land. But they arrive to find him in a bad way; blood poisoning is common and a bad batch has made it past his safeguards. He’s had his last, leaving the Lovers to fend for themselves.
Withdrawal from feeding takes its toll, and the Lovers walk the streets, hoping they won’t have to hunt fresh prey. A compelling musical performance distracts Adam while Eve slinks into the night to find him a gift to buoy his spirits. She comes back with a lute, a completely atavistic instrument they both find beautiful and perfect.
Wasting away on the street, lute in hand, they happen upon two young lovers sharing an intimate moment. They watch the couple admiringly. And then, without any better options, they descend on them. In the closing moment of the film we see Adam and Eve approaching the young lovers, canines exposed.
The pace of the movie is somewhat languorous, and in the theater I felt the narrative was engaging but suffered from a lack of drive. There was, of course, no explosive climax. Each scene seemed to roll out from the last without much added momentum. When the credits rolled, my first thought was that this was a very cool movie with superb acting (Tilda Swinton is 100% compelling), but it’s probably not Jarmusch’s best.
About a day later, thinking about the themes that carry through the film, I started to glimpse a profundity behind the narrative, though even now it refuses to crystallize completely for me. The film wasn’t focused on dramatic thrill; Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on art and immortality.
In the world of the film, history’s great visionary artists have been the puppets of immortal vampires. These vampires (the serious ones, anyway) have no time for a society of zombies. But they remain attached to civilization so that they can giver their art an outlet in the world. The film’s vampires do what they can to enrich “zombie” society from afar.
Those Amanita mushrooms are emblematic of our heroes. These are the visionary, psychedelic mushrooms of legend, offering ancient Siberian shamans a glimpse into the transcendent world beyond. To eat them is to see the world and the self in ecstatic ways. Out of place and out of season, and bearing promises of vision, the Lovers left the mushrooms be. The vampires themselves have artistic, visionary work to do, work that will show the “zombies” new ways to perceive the world and themselves. And like these mushrooms, they just want to be left alone.
It seems perfect coming from Jim Jarmusch. The drive to put art into the world and move on, to avoid getting caught up in fame, to disregard critics and commercial success, and to bring Vision into the world; these are virtues of real artists. The work will last forever, and by extension, the artist. Thinking about the immortal visionaries at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive, I feel appropriately exhorted to “publish or perish.”