Only Lovers Left Alive is at its heart a love story between the Internet's favorite fake couple, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, who play Adam and Eve. They represent ultra-coolness, bohemian heroes in a corrupt civilization that would cast them as outsiders. They just so happen to also be vampires. Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe and The White Stripes' Jack White are among their idols over the centuries. The rest of society remain "zombies," people who undoubtedly twerk to Rihanna and have a favorite version of Real Housewives. In the past, zombies were "pompous" like Lord Byron. To Adam and Eve, these souls are forever blind and brainless, unaware of the world's downfall. As everything crumbles in [Only Lovers Left Alive](movie:413675), Adam and Eve's relationship turns inward. Their hipster proclivities isolate them further from the evolving community around them. They truly become creatures of the night, doomed to repeat their failures along with everyone else.
But director Jim Jarmusch never really hints that their downward spiral will also lead to blissful highs. Their natural coolness prevents them from this. Eve travels from Tangier, the Moroccan City where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, to Adam's crypt in Detroit, a once beautiful mansion without a functioning toilet, and they complain as much as they love. Vampire metaphors - specifically, drug use - are highlighted by the ravaged American city.
Long takes and dark corners shrouded by night are put side-by-side with abandoned warehouses and theaters covered in graffiti and pits of acid that eat human flesh. Degenerate blood isn't safe for vampire consumption, but the vampires still need it if they can't get a clean fix. It's simultaneously Jarmusch's acknowledgment of Detroit as a great American city (Eve's sister, Ava, wants to leave Los Angeles - which Adam calls Zombie Central - for the 313) and how it, along with everything else, will be destroyed. It's ruin porn as Adam drives around the city in his Jaguar XJS, but these vampires manage to be likable because they're still Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.
There's no hope for redemption in the Paris of the Midwest. But then again, Adam and Eve aren't really thinking of any way to advance the city crumbling around them. They just blame the zombies. Eve re-reads Infinite Jest and Don Quixote and Adam writes music he doesn't want anyone to ever hear. He also ghostwrote an adagio for one of Schubert's symphonies. They're just above it all, drinking blood from the prey they despise to stay alive.
It's easy to believe Jarmusch's vision. In real life, the city is still devastated by economic collapse, crime, and drug use after declaring bankruptcy last year. There are still an estimated 78,000 abandoned buildings in the city, simply part of the landscape of a city whose population dropped from almost 2 million people to around 700,000 over the course of 60 years. Over its 142 square miles, 40% of its people live below the poverty line. Heroin is cheap and easy to get. And quite frankly, it's not hard to cringe at photos of the city that come across as exploitation rather than illuminating solutions to social issues. But if Adam and Eve's 3000-year history taught them anything, wouldn't it be that the tide ebbs and flows? Eve even tells Adam, "We've seen this all before." So, why is there only apathy? I'm not sure.
The only other time I've seen this message of urban decay and hopelessness was in George A. Romero's equally brilliant Martin. Romero, mostly known for his Dead franchise, which started with his game-changing 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, created the most biting satire of his career in his only vampire movie from 1978. It doesn't take place in Detroit, but Braddock, Pennsylvania, a place on the east coast that's slowly decomposed since the 1970s after steel mills began to close and crack cocaine and other drugs poured in. Around the time the movie was filmed, the population was 20,000. Currently, it's slightly below 3,000.
Unlike Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, the titular vampire in Martin may just actually be a crazy person, but he's still on the fringe of society. He has no proof he's really 84-years-old and will continue to live forever. He abducts women, puts syringes full of who-knows-what in their arm, and feeds on their blood after slicing them with razor blades. "It won't hurt, I'm always careful," Martin says as he takes his first victim. Like Adam and Eve, he needs his fix, even if he isn't as sanitary about it. But the overwhelming sense of Martin as a character and movie - through its similar dreamlike landscape of a society dying before our eyes - is that he might understand something most of us are unable to see, just as Adam and Eve's centuries of pushing boundaries left them apathetic to the world around them.
But Adam and Eve's world is connected to the past - through the Internet, books, films, and art. It's fascinating to see Martin, a character without the same pretentious biases, struggling for the companionship they take for granted. It's understandable that Adam and Eve would want to separate after being married for hundreds of years for alone time, but they're still able to Skype between Tangier and Detroit. Martin, on the other hand, resorts to calling a local radio station to talk about his undead plight. His guardian, a God-fearing man named Tateh Cuda, calls him "Nosferatu" and threatens him with crosses and cloves of garlic. He refers to his murders as his "sins," and tries to demystify the lore surrounding vampires. He wants his differences to be noticed by Adam and Eve's zombies in a town that's slowly in the process of being forgotten itself.
Martin isn't eerily sexy like Adam and Eve. He's just weird and truly alone. Blood collecting as a pastime aside, his bizarre nature contributes to his grim outcome in Braddock. Whereas he meets his fate in the '70s, Braddock - like Detroit - will continue to evolve, even if it's full of Adam and Eve's zombies. In the case of that small town in Pennsylvania, it further dissolved. Buildings collapsed, a 270,000 square foot hospital closed in 2009, and crime still runs rampant.
But it's not all gloomy. Braddock's current mayor has helped reduce crime by 50% since 2005. Sustainable, urban gardens have been created. Affordable housing has been created in abandoned lots. Youth-oriented programs help employ over 100 kids in the town during the summer. It's this perspective - looking at something and seeing opportunity instead of a lost cause that would make the mournful qualities of Only Lovers Left Alive more compelling. No matter what we build, it'll crumble to the ground, but there's always opportunity to grow again and evolve brilliance.
The next Christopher Marlowe could've come around and Adam and Eve would probably never notice.