Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ and the Tragedy of Time in Artistic Lives


Mortality has its own way of haunting everyone, but for me it often manifests as vague anxiety about running out of time. In the short term, that means constant, low-level resentment over the inability to write or travel or even sleep as much as I’d like. What upsets me more, though, is when I get to thinking about the half-century or so I have left on this planet (if I’m lucky), and I remember that even if I dropped all my responsibilities and started devouring them in earnest, I could never read all the great books that have ever been published. I won’t ever finish watching every brilliant film or hear every transcendent piece of music or take in every masterpiece of visual art, either. And what if I had any ambitions about adding to that canon?

I imagine most people who love art, in one form or many, more than anything else in life have been driven to some sort of self-involved premature mourning over this inevitability, which strikes me as the secret subject of Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, whose irresistible premise is that Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are eons-old vampire lovers named Eve and Adam.

The first thing most reviews will tell you is that there isn’t much plot to the movie; what it does have is brilliant, richly complex characters whose eternal lives are fueled by not only their patient yet intense devotion to one another but also their complementary obsessions with art and ideas. Hiddleston’s Adam idolizes the many misunderstood scientists of human history, from Galileo to Tesla, and makes music that he only occasionally allows to get out into the world (unwilling and in some senses unable to live a public life, he sometimes lets a great musician, like Schubert, take credit for it). Eve is the ideal audience for, and curator of, art; she seems to inhale the books she reads in all of the world’s languages, and watching her dance to music would be enough to make any frustrated artist keep creating (or just, you know, living).

They’re the most cultured beings who have ever existed. The way they think about and create art is informed by thousands of years of traveling the world as generation after generation of “zombies” — that’s what they call humans — live and die. (It’s a great credit to Jarmusch’s musical collaborator, the composer and lutenist Jozef van Wissem, that Adam’s music sounds like the culmination of centuries spent studying drone in all its global forms, embracing slowness in a way that only someone with a unique grasp of duration could.) At one point, Adam remarks that he hates the zombies because they are so afraid, and to me he sounds just as unfair as an aging New Yorker writer blaming the 22-year-olds at Upworthy for the death of journalism, even though they’re suffering far more from their limited prospects than he will ever have to.

Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie, sure. But it’s also a 61-year-old cult filmmaker and renowned aesthete’s lament over how little time we have on Earth, and how much of it we spend fretting about things that would seem inconsequential to a couple of decadent dreamers who’ve lived long enough to anticipate history’s curves and twists. What is actually worth devoting millennia to? Not politics or money (although they have no shortage of that) or even, seemingly, sex. Art, of course, says Jarmusch. And love, too.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott sees the film’s statement as essentially conservative. “At bottom, it’s a generational protest against the zombie kids and their enablers, digitally distracted creatures who don’t appreciate the tactile, sensual glories of the old things,” he writes. I rarely disagree with Scott, but I think he’s dead wrong this time. It’s not one particular age group Jarmusch is frustrated with but the fleeting nature of human existence as a whole. The scene that proves it comes towards the end of the film, after Eve has brought Adam home with her to Tangier. He stumbles upon a performance by the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, who Eve is convinced is going to be huge (apparently in the world of OLLA, she’s not internationally known yet). There are moments when his will to keep going is in doubt, but this moment drives him towards survival. Although Adam does lapse into diatribes against zombies these days, he ends up pushing forward because even after a lifetime that has spanned hundreds of human lifetimes, there is still new music, new art of all kinds, to experience. For individual mortals, who will never catch up, there’s a layer of sadness to that. But it’s also a vote of confidence for generations of zombies to come.