My first exposure to Jim Jarmusch’s magical “Only Lovers Left Alive” was in thrall to jetlag, and I got its vivid, if woozy sense of the circularity of life, art, dance and the revolution of 45rpm records against the desolation of Detroit, Tangier and a musician’s gear-decked digs. What goes around goes around. And goes around. Five months later, clear-headed, early in the morning, his romance between two undead lovers of words and music, Eve and Adam (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston), took the shape of something better, greater, and perhaps the bard of the Lower East Side’s most personal and finest film. Superficially a vampire story—and one that portrays the soft rush of ingested blood like the hard rush of injected heroin—“Only Lovers Left Alive” is also a moving meditation on shifting roles in long-term relationships, on “zombie” culture outside the cluttered, cloistered lair, on the eternal promise and disappointment of youth.
Keenly, “Only Lovers” demonstrates the importance of knowing who, in a couple, will be the one to dream and hold fast while the other might flag and despair? It’s also an impeccably furnished paean to cultivated taste in which its practitioners have had centuries to also develop impeccable self-awareness. The camera quickly pans Adam’s studio wall near the end, finding a gallery of dozens of faces of the greats, which will be recognizable according to a viewer’s own romance of the sound and language of the past: Joe Strummer, Billie Holiday, Mark Twain, Max Ernst, Kafka, Twain, Buster Keaton, Robert Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Nicholas Ray, Claire Denis, Rumi. The movie also comes to a stock-staring stop to observe a small, young female singer in a Tangier café—“Yasmine, she’s Lebanese”—swaying slightly, hair curled to below her shoulders, burning-eyed, moving barefoot on an antique carpet, and every intention of the film physicalizes, both solid and ethereal and wrapped in the sound of the human voice and slow, looping electric guitar. My eyes were accountably wet from the opening image of cold, unflinching stars in the sky that then twirl to blur under the opening credits until the last, tender, vital gesture, toward life, toward survival, that ends this lovely magnum opus. With John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin. 123m. (Ray Pride)
“Only Lovers Left Alive” opens Friday, April 18 at Landmark Century. A clip, “Blood Popsicles,” is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.