Fits Like a Glove: Jarmusch’s Style in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
27 April 2014
In Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), Jim Jarmusch puts his own stake in vampire mythology; Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), his vampire lovers, ritually wear leather gloves (black for Adam and white for Eve) when outside their homes. This memorable inclusion not only adds new flare to Jarmusch’s slant on a vampire tale, but also has figurative appeal; without question, Only Lovers Left Alive, in both content and construct, is so well suited to Jarmusch that it is appropriate to say, this film fits its filmmaker like a glove.
Jarmusch tends to refuse the “auteur” label that associates itself with established filmmakers whose cinematic patterns create a recognized signature in their filmography. To Jarmusch, it seems, the auteur label designates singular authorship, or ownership, of films, challenging the collaborative process Jarmusch reveres in filmmaking. His resistance to this label is admirable, but it is undeniable Jim Jarmusch films are immediately recognized for signatures their filmmaker inherently infuses each new project with. And, Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. The clearest examples of Jarmusch’s style come mostly in the film’s narrative—dark humor, references to the arts, and character-driven story— but the film’s slow pace (even painstaking, if you stand the ‘vampy’ play on words) is evidence that Jarmusch’s distinct cinematic technique also infiltrates Only Lovers Left Alive.
First, and speaking about the film’s narrative, Only Lovers Left Alive is witty, often using dark humor for the audience’s enjoyment. The following statements should fairly well exemplify Jarmusch’s comic genius. Ray-Ban wearing vampires on international redeye flights. Ray-Ban wearing vampires at a bar dancing to music. Vampires watching a 1970’s French Technicolor musical about vampires. A suicidal vampire who is also a scientist and inventor. An avid reader vampire who loves her iPhone. On that note, vampires Face-Timing. Christopher Marlowe, the supposedly dead Renaissance contemporary of William Shakespeare, as a vampire. Vampires discussing nutrition. Blood popsicles. Vampires referring to humans as zombies. Vampires consuming blood from flasks and chalices. And, a personal favorite, vampires covering up a murder by dumping the corpse into toxic sludge…at night, of course. Although none of Jarmusch’s films are outright comedies, humor is an essential element of existence, and in Only Lovers Left Alive, like his collective filmography, Jarmusch never misses the opportunity for a laugh, no matter how dark, disturbing, or bizarre the circumstance.
Moreover, and, perhaps, connected to the humor, Jarmusch’s lead characters, Adam and Eve (hilarious), are very interested in the arts, and are, themselves, references to literature. Yet, from the literary perspective, it is not only the Bible and the aforementioned playwright Christopher Marlowe Jarmusch uses; Adam, when dressed like a doctor to “buy” his blood from a Detroit hospital, wears nametags, including Dr. Faust. Beyond literature, Adam’s next name tag is Dr. Caligari, a film reference. And, of course, Adam is a musician who, in the film’s opening, displays his prowess in music history when his “zombie” associate, Ian, presents Adam three new guitars. This, too, is classic Jarmusch. Not only does the film follow two articulate, intelligent, worldly characters who immerse themselves in the arts, but the film itself is an homage to the arts.
And, continuing to look at Jarmusch’s narrative signature, Only Lovers Left Alive is a character-driven story, in line with Jarmusch’s collection of films. As with most character-driven stories, nothing remarkable happens in the film’s plot; in fact, early on, Eve tells Adam, via Face-Time, these two have been through “all of this before.” Sure, when the film picks up, Adam is depressed and suicidal in the dying city of Detroit, forcing Eve, his wife, to leave her book-filled lair inside the labyrinth of Tangier in order to lift his spirits, but, according to Eve, that is nothing new, certainly nothing that complicates their relationship, lives, or alters them whatsoever; plot is rather irrelevant in this film. As usual, Jarmusch writes a rather anti-climactic story that focuses on the minutia of these lovers’ lives. Interestingly, viewers do not learn much about Adam or Eve, such as their individual pasts or beginning of their relationship. Nor do they learn everything about their current lives. Instead, viewers watch the simple everyday interactions between these two lovers for the brief amount of time the film covers, offering an intimate understanding of the lovers, as opposed to an all-knowing lesson in the characters’ histories.
Stepping away from Jarmusch’s narrative signatures in this film, Only Lovers Left Alive fits Jarmusch like a glove in its cinematic technique. A common denominator in all Jarmusch’s films is pacing, which is always leisurely to establish tone and compliment the intimate, revealing character-driven narratives. As always, Jarmusch moves his camera in Only Lovers Left Alive about as much as his sleepy (and often weakened) vampires run; stillness is essential to the film’s pacing. Even in a scene with dancing, such as Eve’s seductive dance for, and then with, Adam, to relive him of his present melancholy, Jarmusch uses slow motion, even superimposing slow-motion shots of the dancing over each other to suppress the movement. The effect is almost hypnotic; a sure echo of the film’s overtly hypnotic opening credits. Moreover, cuts in and between scenes are less frequent in Jarmusch’s work than the average film, including Only Lovers Left Alive; further aiding the film’s intentionally restrained pace.
Interesting, and looking symbolically at some of Jarmusch’s decisions in Only Lovers Left Alive, the filmmaker seems to comment on, even defend, his signature pacing. The character Ava embodies action, speed, energy, and, ultimately, recklessness. These are the very qualities, in filmmaking, Jarmusch avoids. What happens to Ava? Viewers do not know, and, frankly, do not care; she is exiled from the film. Looked at on a slant, Jarmusch creates a characters that represents the very antithesis of his style only to publicly banish her from his work.
In all, Only Lovers Left Alive is quintessential Jarmusch masterpiece. Because Jarmusch writes his own work, the narrative commonalities between this film and his other are undeniable: humor, artistic references, and a character-driven narrative. Moreover, in cinematic technique, Jarmusch stays true to his careful, thorough pace, even, symbolically, defending his film’s speed. As constantly shown in the film, through Adam and Eve’s costuming, Jarmusch absolutely created a film he wears like a glove.