Only Lovers Left Alive, or what is it like to be a meta-reflexive vampire?

I’m not someone who is interested in vampires, either in the highbrow terms you’ll sometimes find in English Literature departments or the lowbrow terms that modishly respond to their asinine revival in popular culture (also sometimes found in English Literature departments). But if the man who directed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai has directed a vampire film, it’s probably going to be a little bit different… and it is. Only Lovers Left Alive is, in a manner of speaking, a romantic comedy. It depicts an episode in the lives of two world-weary and highly-cultured vampires, who take their pleasure where they find it as the world around them gently slides into oblivion. In a weird sort of way, it really reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis in the sense that music is deployed artfully to help get ‘inside’ a life where nothing much really happens, capturing the texture and the temporality of existence for those who, to an outside observer, simply appear languid and aimless.

The film has two settings: post-crash Detroit and ancient Tangier. The former is placed very much in time, with expository dialogue about its depopulation constituting the one clunky moment in this otherwise accomplished film. The latter is very much out of time, an effect intensified by the presence of an ancient Christopher Marlowe whiling away his final years in the back room of an all night cafe. The aesthetics of industrial ruination have become a little bit of a cliche at this point (though not, perhaps, for everyone) but this only detracted a little from the cinematographic accomplishment of so overpoweringly capturing the extent to which vampiric capital* has left Detroit drained and dying.

Adam, reclusive post-rock genius and former pal of Byron, spends his days rattling around in an old house in a deserted part of town, making music and playing with the instruments he’s accumulated over the years, all the while becoming steadily more depressed. Eve, his gregarious and effusive literary wife of the last two centuries, lives in Tangiers while maintaining a social life of sorts (at least compared to Adam). The film revolves around Adam’s growing depression, with him becoming suicidal as bearing witness to what the ‘zombies’ are doing to the world gradually wears him down, before Eve visits him in Detroit out of concern for his declining mental health. Then Eve’s ‘younger’ sister arrives unexpectedly, sparking off a chain of events which generates upheaval and forces both Adam and Eve to move on and adapt to new circumstances; something which, we’re reminded at the conclusion, they must have done on many occasions in their long lives.

Given how attentive to time the film was, it seemed odd to me that it felt so unnecessarily compressed. The growing tendency towards long films** generally irritates me but this is one of those rare occasions where I felt a two hour film would have benefited from a further hour. Not only because it was such an aesthetic delight, with post-rock melancholia framing the worn beauty of Adam and Eve and the desolate urban landscape in which much of the film was played out. But it could have explored the characters further. Culture was a big part of the film: books, music, musical instruments, technological artefacts, composition, attribution, literary figures. But the meaning of this for Adam and Eve only figured tangentially. There were a few asides about the importance of “getting the work out” or words to that effect but little exploration of this motivation or the meanings underlying it. What is it like to be a depressed vampire? Perhaps I’m approaching the film rather idiosyncratically but it felt like an answer to this question was tacitly promised but never explicitly offered.

*Thankfully the expository dialogue stopped short of a conversation about how “we just suck people’s blood but their system sucks away all life” even though the direction was clearly gesturing towards this.

**This may very well be confirmation bias on my part.

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