“This is the bloody twenty-first century!”: The (Post)Modern Vampires of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

By M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) features two impossibly old, world-weary vampire lovers who band together in mutual love against the contamination and commodification of the human world. Their connection is mysterious, but powerful—something, we are told, along the lines of the phenomenon of quantum entanglement in modern physics. It’s a surprising analogy, as vampire films go, but then this is a surprising vampire film, one that uses its vampires in an allegorical mode to comment on a number of serious environmentalist and anti-capitalist issues, but one that also constantly complements its own seriousness with Jarmusch’s trademark indie cool and with tongue-in-cheek motifs that spoof the vampire genre and border on absolute silliness. Ultimately, though, the film refuses to accept the polar opposition between seriousness and silliness, just as it rejects binary thinking as a whole.

From the very beginning, it is clear that Only Lovers Left Alive is not your father’s vampire film. It opens with a scene that foreshadows almost all of the major elements of the film in just a few carefully constructed moments. A close-up shot of a turntable shows an old 45 rpm vinyl of rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” playing (in what appears to be a slightly slowed-down version that makes it sound even more psychedelic and hallucinogenic than it already did when it appeared, seemingly ahead of its time, in 1961). A cut to an overhead shot of Eve, the film’s female lead (played by Tilda Swinton with an oddly upbeat lethargy), shows her lying nearly catatonic, while the shot slowly spins, making her seem all the more drugged out, her spinning echoing that of the record, to which she seems to be listening. The lyrics echo the scene as well, as Jackson sings about her head spinning around as she circles into the funnel of love. Eve is, we will eventually learn, in an apartment in Tangier, surrounded by clutter made up mostly of an eclectic collection of books. Eve would seem to be listening to the music, but then a cut to an overhead shot of Adam, the film’s male lead (played with a more Byronic, world-weary lethargy by Tom Hiddleston, who seems to be channeling Jeremy Irons in much of the film, with a dash of Edward Scissorhands thrown in for good measure). The shot shows Adam spinning in the same way as Eve and seemingly listening to the same music as he lies, holding an oud (a Middle Eastern ancestor of the guitar). He is in a similarly catatonic state, in a similarly cluttered room, though we will eventually learn that his room is in a house on the outskirts of Detroit, thousands of miles away from Eve. His room, meanwhile, is cluttered with implements, not from the world of literature, but from the world of music, including the turntable itself and a variety of other bits and pieces of retro technology. Like Jarmusch himself, Adam is a composer and musician, tempting us to see Adam as the director’s mouthpiece in the film.  

The parallel narratives that begin the film proceed as Adam and Eve both go out shopping for blood. He, in one of the film’s many humorous moments, disguises himself as a doctor, with a nametag that identifies him as “Dr. Faust.” He then drives his vintage Jaguar (apparently tricked-out with a custom electric engine) to a local hospital where he buys blood from an employee (whose nametag reads “Dr. Watson”). It’s a purely economic transaction, and the hospital seller is not Adam’s friend. In fact, he seems to hold his customer in contempt, though it is not clear whether he knows about Adam’s vampirism. The seller isn’t, for example, trying to be helpful when he points out that the stethoscope Adam is wearing is (like all of Adam’s favored technological devices) an antique. The message is clear: he knows Adam is an impostor (at one point he calls him “Dr. Strangelove”), even if he doesn’t know exactly what Adam is up to.

For her part, Eve heads out on foot into the alleyways of Tangier. It’s an ancient and somewhat crumbling part of the city, though it is actually in far better condition than Adam’s Detroit. In fact, the contrast between the two cities seems designed specifically to undermine the Orientalist notion, as described by Edward Said, that the world is symbolically divided between “the clean, well-lighted European city, and the dark, fetid, ill-lit casbah” (Culture 270). Among other things, Tangier is a city with thriving stalls and shops, much more alive than the film’s decaying Detroit. Then Eve goes to a coffee shop amusingly called the “Thousand and One Nights Café,” its name given in both Arabic and French on a sign outside. There she meets first with Bilal (Slimane Dazi), an Arab man she knows, and then with his “teacher,” who turns out himself to be a vampire, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

Eve and Marlowe are clearly old friends, and when he gives her a supply of blood (“the good stuff”) obtained from a friendly “French doctor,” it is an act of friendship that differs dramatically from the cold (and somewhat hostile) transaction through which Adam acquires blood in Detroit. The film thus sets up, early on, a contrast in which the modern culture of late capitalist America finds individuals radically alienated from one another, able to interact only economically (and somewhat antagonistically). In the more traditional Tangier, however, individuals can still connect on a personal level and can interact in a mode of genuine care and concern.

The contrast here is clearly meant to work to the advantage of Tangier, in a possible case of reverse Orientalism, but the film as a whole undermines simple binary oppositions, such as those that underlie Orientalism—or like the Culture vs. Nature binary that has led to catastrophic climate change. For one thing, the experiences of Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit are often quite similar, seemingly almost synchronized, perhaps by some sort of supernatural connection enabled by their vampirism. When they get back to their homes with their newly acquired blood, they each take a drink, seemingly at the same time. In fact, Marlowe drinks at the same time as well, and each of the three drinks from an identical glass. The drinking has a very ceremonial, ritualistic air, almost like a parody of the drinking of the blood in the Christian Eucharist. Each vampire reacts to the new sustenance in the same way—with an almost religious ecstasy, though it’s really more like a drugged-out, trance-like euphoria that is clearly meant to evoke the reactions of heroin addicts to their own fresh intake of the “good stuff.”

Eve, though she clearly prefers Tangier, seems much more comfortable with modernity than does Adam, who prefers to live in Detroit. Thus, as she comes out of her blood-induced stupor, she calls Adam on her iPhone to hold a transcontinental telephone conversation; he answers, however, on an outmoded conventional cordless phone, though he has rigged it so that it can be linked to an old cathode-ray-tube television to allow them to have a video call, for which she uses a Facetime-like app. Far from being a genuine technophobe, Adam is extremely adept at working with the alternative technologies he prefers. His opposition is clearly not to technology itself, but to what he sees as the soulless, commodified uses to which contemporary technology has been put. He himself lives off the electrical grid, producing his own power via a Tesla generator that he himself has devised. Nikolai Tesla, in fact, is one of his greatest heroes, as are a number of other scientists, though he takes a somewhat romanticized view of scientific inquiry, which he sees almost as just another example of artistic creativity that has been conscripted by capitalist modernity, its practitioners unappreciated by the humans around them. Thus, when Eve reminds him of the scientists he admires (as examples that humans can sometimes do worthwhile things), he bitterly reminds her of the dire fates suffered by most of his scientific heroes:

“The scientists. Well, look at what they’ve done to them. Pythagoras, slaughtered. Galileo, imprisoned. Copernicus, ridiculed. Poor old Newton, pushed into secrecy and alchemy. Tesla, destroyed. His beautiful possibilities completely ignored. And they’re still bitching about Darwin, still. So much for the scientists.”

Eve, though, is a glass-half-full kind of vampire. When Adam tells her he feels the sand of history is at the bottom of the hourglass, for example, she offers the simple (and somewhat facile) advice that he should invert the glass so that the sand is now at the top. Similarly, when she finally travels to Detroit to reunite with Adam, she seems surprised that the city is in such a ruined condition, but expresses confidence that it will rise again. In one of several indications in the film of earth’s impending ecological crisis, she suggests that, with global warming running rampant, Detroit’s northern latitude and bountiful supply of water will make it a choice location when “the cities in the south are burning.”[1] She is also appalled when she discovers the wooden bullet that Adam has procured, a bullet he obviously wants to have on hand should he decide to opt for suicide. In response, she reminds Adam that he has been lucky in love, then entices him to dance with her as a 45 rpm vinyl of Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” plays on the turntable.

Eve’s attitude seems to come partly from the fact that she is much older than Adam and thus can take a much longer view of history—though, again, the film never makes the details of this age difference clear, leaving much of it to conjecture on the part of audiences.[2] Still, one of her strategies for trying to cheer Adam up about the state of the modern world is to remind him that the world has been through many dark periods before. She sardonically reminds him that he missed all the “real fun,” like the Middle Ages, the Tartars, the Inquisitions, and all sorts of floods and plagues. The implication seems to be that she is old enough to remember all of these events directly, while he is not, leaving audiences to ponder the possibility that she might, in fact, have been the vampire who “turned” Adam, perhaps during the Renaissance.

The Renaissance is a key point of cultural reference in Only Lovers. When Eve complains to Marlowe about Adam’s “romanticism” shortly before she leaves Tangier for Detroit, she blames much of the dark streak in Adam’s personality on the influence of Shelley and Byron and “those French assholes he used to hang out with.” Marlowe seems to agree that the Romantic poets she mentioned were problematic, though he himself is a poet of considerable talent. He casually mentions in this conversation that he was the author of Hamlet, and it gradually becomes clear that he is the Christopher Marlowe, and that (at least in the world of this film) he in fact wrote many (if not all) of the works that have been attributed to Shakespeare, with a wink and a nod to the long-held suspicion of this authorship among fans of Shakespearean alternative-authorship theories.

Marlowe, like Adam, doesn’t mind keeping a low personal profile, as long as his work reaches an audience. Adam, after all, has done his own share of ghost writing, as when we learn that he once wrote an adagio for a string quartet that has been attributed to Schubert, asking Schubert to present the music as his own. Indeed, one of the enigmas that inhabits this very mysterious film is the question of just how much Adam, Marlowe, and other artistic vampires like them might have secretly contributed to the progression of human cultural history over the centuries, given that each vampire has a potentially unlimited lifespan that might allow him or her to develop a very significant body of work over the ages. One wonders, in fact, if the vampires of Only Lovers might have given human culture a periodic boost, playing a role in the evolution of that culture similar to the one played in the evolution of human intelligence by the aliens of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In any case, Adam’s fascination with early rockabilly music suggests that his elitist tastes are quite complex, going far beyond a simple preference for highbrow music over popular music to include an admiration for anything that is genuinely innovative. But this fascination also offers us the tantalizing possibility that Adam himself might have somehow played a role in the rather sudden rise of rockabilly music in the second half of the 1950s, just as he might also have contributed to the appearance of Romantic poetry (and music) in the early nineteenth century. Such speculation is fun, but not directly supported by anything in the film. Still, the film clearly invites speculation in general by leaving so many questions unanswered. Meanwhile, Adam’s preference for instruments from the late 1950s and early 1960s provides a hint that this period was a sort of Golden Age for him, contributing to his overall sense that things have been in decline ever since then, leading to his current sense that things are coming to an end.

Adam’s distaste for the contemporary world causes him to retreat into seclusion, communicating with the outside world through a young man named Ian (Anton Yelchin), whom Adam employs as a sort of procurer for various items that he needs in his work and life and also as a liaison to the music industry. Early in the film, Ian arrives bringing three vintage guitars, including a Gretsch Chet Atkins—like the one that Adam admiringly says he once saw rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran play, though he notes that Cochran played a modified version. Ian is surprised that Adam, who doesn’t look over forty, could have seen Eddie Cochran, given that the latter died more than 50 years before the presumed time period of the action of the film. So Adam hastily covers his tracks by adding that what he means is that he saw Cochran on YouTube, though he almost flinches with disgust at the mention of that medium. Later, Adam more clearly reveals his dismissive attitude toward digital archives in a scene in which Eve’s flakey (and very modern) “sister”[3] Ava (Mia Wasikowska) watches a delightfully awful kitschy psychedelic video called “Soul Dracula.” Adam, however, is not amused and asks her, with disgust, what she is watching. Eve employs her seemingly photographic memory (possibly aided by supernatural psychic powers) to identify the video as coming from French television in 1975. Adam turns off the TV, and Ava complains, “Why did you turn it off? I love that. I found it on YouTube.” “Of course you did,” says Adam, as if the source explains the low cultural quality of the video without further comment.

Ava, though, is all about the digital. When she discovers the music Adam has been recording (on reel-to-reel tape), she asks for a “download.” He refuses, of course. Adam employs a number of vintage instruments in the recording of his music, including some electronic ones, but the technology is generally old and generally analog. Similarly, he is highly suspicious of techniques for digital storage and transmission of culture, which clearly seem to him somehow less authentic than real, tangible artifacts. He is also an aesthetic elitist, if of an unconventional sort, and much of his distaste for YouTube might have to do with its indiscriminate nature, with music and visual arts of all levels of quality and sophistication mixed freely together. On the other hand, he is also a technological elitist who finds much about modern technology to be shabby and vulgar, so he might have a problem simply with YouTube as a medium, regardless of its content.

Reclusive and ultra-secretive (perhaps mostly because he is a vampire, but also out of individual preference), Adam is uncomfortable in a modern world in which information flows so freely and in which everyone seems to know everything about everyone else—especially about show-business personalities. Adam thus employs Ian to leak his music (supposedly anonymously) into the mediascape, because (no matter how reclusive he might be personally) Adam feels that it is important to “get the work out there.” It’s a problematic strategy, of course. Once the work is “out there,” Adam can no longer control its circulation, especially in the age of digital reproduction. Moreover, as Ian warns him, the more he avoids publicity, the more fascinated and curious his fans, conditioned to be insatiable consumers of information, are going to be about him and his work.

 Adam, of course, is not thrilled to be so fascinating to an audience of “zombies”—his favored term for humans held in the thrall of consumerism[4]. It is clear, in fact, that his sense that we are in the end times derives at least partly from a rather haughty distaste for what he sees as the crass commercialism of late capitalist culture. Adam’s penchant for classic guitars is one of the film’s clearest indications of his horror of consumerism—even though at first glance his seeming fetishization of these material objects might seem like the veritable embodiment of consumerism. For one thing, it is quite possible that, as a musical artist, he literally needs these particular guitars to produce the sounds he wants to produce, especially as he has no interest in producing sounds digitally. Thus, the guitars Ian brings him are not mere commodities, but genuine objects that he treasures for their special use value.

Both Adam and Eve seem at first glance rather acquisitive, and both live surrounded by objects they love, generally piled and tossed about willy nilly with little concern for order. Their messiness, however, is clearly not meant to suggest that they don’t care about the objects but instead suggests that the objects have been acquired not as commodities, but as revered souvenirs of the long history through which the vampires have lived. The vampires are not hoarders, but collectors, and these objects have essentially been saved from consumption as commodities by removing them from the supply line. As Mike D’Angelo puts it, “the vampires’ primary function is to appreciate the things we humans take for granted; they’re much more like curators than monsters.”

Adam’s home is cluttered mostly with objects related to the world of music, while Eve’s clutter comes mostly from the stacks of books that seem to inhabit virtually every space in her apartment. Importantly, it is clear that she loves the books not just as physical objects, but for their intellectual content. Thus, as she lovingly packs some of her favorite volumes in preparation to travel to Detroit, she reads through a few pages of each, absorbing what she reads with near-reverential pleasure. Her tastes in literature, like Adam’s in music, are eclectic. The books she reads are mostly classics, and she reads them in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Chinese, among other languages, though it will eventually become clear that her reading is in the mode of a visit to an old friend and that she probably knows all of the texts by heart, just as she possesses a shockingly encyclopedic knowledge of many other things as well. She’s been learning for a long time. In addition to older classics such as Don Quixote or Orlando Furioso, she also has copies of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), among more contemporary Western works, as well as The Bastard of Istanbul, a 2006 English-language novel by the Turkish novelist Elif Şafak, whose work epitomizes the collapse of boundaries between Eastern and Western cultures in the age of globalization, a collapse that is so vividly portrayed in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Eve’s global collection of literature, meanwhile, also dramatizes this collapse, and the Arabic texts that she packs for her trip are particularly significant. One of these is fairly unsurprising: it’s a book of poetry featuring lines from poems by Umar Ibn Abi Rabi’ah, a pioneer of early Islamic love poetry. The lines we see on the screen are of a sort that one might expect to appeal to a vampire, featuring comments on the tastiness of the loved one, including one memorably over-the-top line that translates to “And if the dead were given her saliva to drink, they would revive and come back to life.”

The second Arabic text might be even more interesting. It’s an Arabic translation of a Harlequin romance by legendary British romance novelist Carole Mortimer.[5] Of course, just as Adam, with his sometime highbrow tastes in music, can be an aficionado of rockabilly music, so too can Eve be a fan of Harlequin romances. They’re vampires, of course, so their standards might be different from those of humans. Both Adam and Eve are clearly cultural elitists, but their standards of elitism are their own and do not necessarily match the official values of Western canonical culture. Indeed, they seem to appreciate anything that is among the best of its kind, no matter what its kind might be. In this case, of course, the fact that Eve is reading Carole Mortimer (one of the most respected of romance novelists) in Arabic translation not only breaks down distinctions between “high” and “low” literature, but also between Western and Arabic literature, though it does seem a bit odd that she reads this particular book in translation, while she seems to read all of her other books in their original languages—almost as if this particular book were planted in her collection by Jarmusch as an inside joke.

That Adam, in particular, adheres to a different set of aesthetic values than those of the modern West can be seen in his attitude toward his music. He wants that music to have listeners; he even wants feedback (he says he seeks a “reflection,” tossing in a quick vampire joke). But he doesn’t see why the zombies who listen to his music need to relate it to him as the maker. Why, he wants to know, do they always need an artist whom they can identify as the source of a work of art? Why, of course, was long ago explained by Walter Benjamin when he noted the Christian religious origins of Western art, arguing that, for Western audiences, a great work of art traditionally has an “aura” that the audiences can associate with the godlike hand of the creator of the work. In this way, consuming a work of art metaphorically puts the consumer in touch with god. But vampires are traditionally the enemies of Christianity, so it should come as no surprise that Adam has little use for this god-based version of aesthetics.

Adam’s eccentric values can also be seen in the fact that he seems to have no objection to living in squalor, despite the fact that he apparently has virtually unlimited amounts of cash (presumably from the proceeds of his music, though the source is not specified). Not only do all of the objects in his house, especially the technological ones, seem old, but the house itself is decrepit, seemingly on the verge of collapse. When Ian worries that he should wipe his feet to avoid tracking mud into the house, Adam simply tells him “don’t bother”—neither Adam nor Eve seems much concerned about good housekeeping. Meanwhile, Adam’s house resides on the outskirts of a Detroit that is practically a ghost town, a ruined, polluted, postapocalyptic remnant from the glory days of industrial capitalism.

Perhaps Adam is attracted to this Detroit simply because it does contain whole areas that are virtually deserted, almost entirely free of the zombies that he finds so appalling, beings so greedy and irresponsible that they have “succeeded in contaminating their own fucking blood, never mind their water.”[6] It is also possible that Adam finds a certain pleasure in moving amid the ruins of an industrial capitalism that he feels has been central to the destruction of everything he values about the world. We really don’t know, just as we never really discover why he and Eve, despite their obvious love for one another, are living thousands of miles apart as the film opens. Only Lovers is a film that contains a number of such mysteries, almost as if Jarmusch wanted to leave questions unanswered and things unknown as his own response to the proliferation of information in modern media culture.

The first half of Only Lovers Left Alive is spent in putting all of its big ideas in place, while the narrative itself moves at a leisurely pace that is perhaps befitting to a story involving characters who can potentially live forever. Time, after all, has a whole different scale for such creatures, making their individual life stories much more like history itself than are the individual lives of mere mortals. Thus, even when Adam and Eve go out for drives around Detroit, the pace remains slow, almost surreal, as he shows her various sites around his adopted hometown, including an abandoned Packard factory, where, as Adam puts it, “they once built the most beautiful cars in the world,” again showing his propensity for converting commodities into aesthetic objects. He also shows her the childhood home of musician Jack White, whose work he apparently admires, and (perhaps most telling of all) the Michigan Theater, a gorgeous movie palace (suitable for the hosting of live concerts) built in the 1920s on the very site where Henry Ford made his first prototype automobile. That seeming victory of the aesthetic over the commercial has, however, now been reversed and the majestic building has been obscenely converted into a parking garage (an event that occurred in the 1970s), the ornately-decorated plaster ceiling of the original still intact as if to emphasize the building’s fall from former glory. It’s a perfect illustration of Adam’s view of history.[7]

The narrative pace does pick up briefly midway through the film, when Ava shows up in Detroit for a visit. Her irreverent, risk-taking attitude is clearly a problem for an immortal vampire, for whom the stakes are always high when living among mortal humans. Eve and Adam are cautious and try to keep the lowest possible profiles. Ava just wants to have fun, to which end she finally convinces Adam and Eve to go out with her to a local club, where the band White Hills is playing live. There, they meet up with Ian, whom Ava finds amusing enough to invite back to Adam’s house—where she can’t resist drinking her fill of his blood. It’s a sign of her inability to resist her appetites, clearly making her an emblem of the consumerism Adam so despises. When Eve discovers Ian’s body, two fang marks in its neck, she is exasperated, though perhaps less upset than one might expect. “This is the bloody twenty-first century!” she hilariously screams at her sister, even if she isn’t intentionally trying to be funny. Eve also apparently isn’t intentionally being humorous when, after Ava complains the Ian’s blood made her feel sick, she yells, “What did you expect? He’s from the fucking music industry!” In any case, Ian’s death initiates a flurry of activity in which Adam and Eve send Ava packing and dispose of Ian’s body (by dumping him in a pool of acid at some sort of abandoned industrial site). “Well, that was visual,” quips Eve, as the acid eats the flesh from Ian’s bones. Still, they had all just been seen together in the club the night before, so there’s a good chance the authorities will be looking for them. They then flee to the safety of Tangier, leaving all of Adam’s beautiful musical instruments behind. Eve books their airline tickets under the names of Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan, suggesting that Ulysses (or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)and The Great Gatsby might also be among her favorite novels.

Thus, Adam and Eve flee Detroit just as so many others before them, especially so many white others, though it is significant that they flee, not to white suburbs, but to the Middle East, complicating the usual nature of white flight. As Steven Shaviro has argued, it might be significant that the major figures of American culture we encounter in Detroit are Jack White of the White Stripes (indirectly) and White Hills (directly). For Shaviro, this nod toward whiteness is not accidentally, but reminds us that Detroit has not really been abandoned by humans—just by white humans. Similarly, it is not human culture and history that are coming to an end in the film—only white culture and history, that is, only the age of white Western global hegemony.

On the other hand, nothing is simple in this film, and it is clear that Jarmusch is a fan of White Hills, who performed their song “Under Skin or By Name” in the shabby Detroit club at Jarmusch’s request. Their psychedelic, post-punk music might seem a bit decadent, but it is clearly meant to be quality decadence, as is also seen by the fact that even Adam seems to like it. It might be noted that Jarmusch is a fan of Jack White as well and that he recruited both Jack and his White Stripes partner Meg White to appear in his 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes, in a segment tellingly entitled “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” providing a direct link back to Only Lovers Left Alive and suggesting that the Whites might have been one model for Jarmusch’s vision of Adam and Eve. Thus it can be safe to assume that Jarmusch meant to offer up neither White Hills nor White Stripes as an example of the exhaustion of white Western culture, but perhaps as signs that this dying culture still has some life in it yet.

It might also be significant that virtually the only discernible lyric in the White Hills song in the film is “We’re all the same,” providing a direct statement (however seemingly trite) of the film’s project of breaking down binary oppositions. This theme is then further reinforced after Adam and Eve arrive in Tangier, only to find that Marlowe is dying from drinking contaminated blood and that his former supply of the good stuff is no longer available, though he gives them the last tiny amount that he has. His condition, then, suggests that contaminated blood (read, civilizational decline in the age of late capitalism) is not limited to the West, but has come to Tangier as well, something that is not surprising in the age of global capitalism.

Weak from bloodthirst, Adam and Eve seem to be stumbling toward death. However, the film takes a turn when Adam discovers a bit of musical inspiration. As Eve goes off to buy him a magnificent new oud to partly replace the instruments he left behind in Detroit, Adam suddenly hears music coming from a Moroccan street café. At first the music sounds very Middle Eastern, and the vocals begin with a plaintive, stretched-out “Ahwak!” (“I adore you.”) But, as Adam (and the camera) look inside the café the scene is anything but a traditional Middle Eastern one. The relatively sedate scene is definitely different from the raucous one that obtained in the club Adam and Eve had earlier visited in Detroit, but the difference between the two clubs is hardly one of polar opposition. The Detroit club may seem more drugged-out and decadent, but the atmosphere in the Tangier club is a bit druggy as well. The two clubs are basically two different versions of the same idea, rather than two diametrically opposed cultural visions.

The haunting voice Adam hears is that of the Paris-based Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, herself a sort of walking deconstruction of Orientalist East-West oppositions, in both her performance and her costuming.[8] The audience in the crowded club wears mostly Western dress, though there are a few djellabas and hijabs thrown in as well. They are seemingly as mesmerized as is Adam, and little wonder—it’s a mesmerizing performance. Hamdan sings the song “Hal” (“Solution”), about a love that can never die and the pain of separation, so the song is certainly thematically appropriate for this film. But the overall performance is even more appropriate. This is no exotic Oriental song, but a very modern one with Oriental elements mixed in, breaking down East-West oppositions by including backing by Moroccan drums and by a guitarist playing an American Fender electric guitar (emphasized in two different close-ups of the instrument).

To complicate matters still further, the lyrics of the song are essentially a sort of postmodern mashup of 1950s Egyptian movie music, itself heavily influenced by American movie music from the same period. That opening “Ahwak,” for example, evokes the song of that title performed by Abdelhalim Hafed in the film Banat el Youm (“Girls of Today,” 1957), which is also about the pain of love and separation—and about losing one’s soul in an overwhelming love. The most important Egyptian movie musical referent, however, is probably the song “El Alb Iheb Marra May Hebbech” (“The Heart Loves Only Once”), performed by Egyptian megastar Shadia in the 1959 film Irham Hobbi (“Have Mercy on My Love”). This song is of obvious relevance to the theme of undying love in Only Lovers Left Alive, while the actual scene from the original film also oddly mirrors the one with Hamdan, as Shadia performs the song surrounded by an admiring audience, much as Hamdan does.

Eve arrives and enjoys most of the performance with Adam, declaring afterward that Hamdan is sure to become a famous star. But to Adam, of course, commercial success is tantamount to artistic death. “God I hope not,” he quips. “She’s way too good for that.” She’s so good, in fact, that she seems to revive his interest in life, providing a key example in the film of Jarmusch’s belief in the revitalizing power of art. They’re still out of blood, though. Adam muses that 82% of human blood is water and asks Eve if the water wars have started yet, or if it’s still all about the oil. In one last nod toward the global warming/climate change motif that has hovered over the entire film, she says that the water wars are just starting. It’s as if the world is dying along with Adam and Eve.

Suddenly, they spot a beautiful young Moroccan couple, kissing and clearly very much in love. The obvious connection experienced by the couple inspires Eve to ask Adam to explain again Einstein’s theory of quantum entanglement, which might not seem very romantic, but turns out to be romantic indeed. “If you separate an entwined particle and move both parts away from the other,” he says, “even at opposite ends of the universe, if you alter or affect one, the other will be identically altered or affected.” Some things—and some people (or vampires)—are just meant to be together forever. They gave up feeding on live humans long ago (“It’s so fucking fifteenth century,” Eve proclaims), but Adam and Eve decide to change their policy and to feed on this young couple—but only just enough to turn them, creating another loving vampire couple like themselves, rather than killing them.

The film ends as they start to feed, but the fact that this final moment of horror is given a clearly comic twist provides one last opportunity for the film to undermine the notion that horror and humor are polar opposites. This final scene also reminds us that this is a moment not of death, but of renewal and rebirth, suggesting that they have found a way to carry on, despite everything, a way to overcome the stupid self-destructive tendencies of the human race and live on. Shaviro sees a clear allegorical indication here, as the ultra-white vampire couple feed on the young brown couple, also arguing that Hamdan’s musical inspiration of Adam contributes to this motif of renewal and reinvigoration of the First World by feeding on the people and cultures of the Third World. It’s a classic Orientalist motif, per Said, and there is, doubtless, some of this in the film. But this young, beautiful couple seems mostly just to be young and beautiful, their cultural background or skin color being beside the point—even if there is also the suggestion that such a young healthy couple is much more likely to be found in Tangier than in the degraded, postapocalyptic environment of Detroit.

Any sort of Us vs. Them thinking is, in fact, radically undermined by this final scene, just as binary logic is undermined throughout the film. The vampires might be white and European, but they are still vampires and thus radically Other, while the younger lovers might be brown and Arab, but they are still humans. But they are also about to be turned into vampires, confusing any attempt at thinking of the scene in terms of polar oppositions even more. There is more at stake here, though, than a “we are all the same” merging. Only Lovers Left Alive is complex and nuanced enough that this final emphasis on hybridity and continuity is more than mere rosy-eyed cliché: the film still ends with the old feeding on the young, the rich feeding on the poor, the white feeding on the brown, and it is clear that overcoming these distinctions in a productive way will not be an easy matter in the real world. Indeed, the radical dismantling of binary thinking throughout Only Lovers suggests that it might be simpler to overcome Orientalist distinctions in the world of culture than in the real world, and one gets the sense (partly from the liberal sprinkling of humor that runs through the film) that Jarmusch is not particularly optimistic that his film will really make a difference. Still, the film at least suggests that culture might be the place to start in working to overcome such binary thinking in the world at large.

As Stępień notes, Jarmusch seems to feel that “the arts are rejuvenating forces, the antidote to a commoditized environment” (213). It is certainly the case that all of Jarmusch’s recent films feature prominent artist figures—from the composer/musician Adam, to the eponymous poet protagonist of Paterson (2016), to the aesthetic-minded otherworldly undertaker in The Dead Don’t Die (2019), played, incidentally, by Swinton. And maybe Jarmusch is on to something in using the vampire film—typically a form of mass culture, however aesthetically elevated it becomes in the hands of Jarmusch—as an artful counterpoint to late capitalism. After all, Fredric Jameson has reminded us that mass culture, generally a venue in which potentially oppositional impulses are managed and controlled, can also be a place where “these same impulses … are awakened within the very text that seeks to still them” (Political 287).


[1] For a more extensive reading of the environmentalist emphasis of the film, see Mansbridge and Viars.

[2] In interviews, the actors have expressed their understanding that Eve is about 3000 years old and Adam about 500 years old.

[3] When Adam asks if Ava is really her sister, Eve merely replies, in one of the film’s many vampire jokes, “Well, we are related by blood.”

[4] Adam’s terminology perhaps presages the fact that Jarmusch would soon make a spoofy zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die (2019).

[5] The novel is A Rogue and a Pirate (1986), though its Arabic title, Rajul Min Waraq, literally means “Man of Paper.” The Arabic translation appeared in Riwayat Abir (“Abir’s Novels”), a popular Egyptian-published romance novel series.

[6] The contaminated blood motif that runs through the film is most obviously an AIDS reference, but it also seems like a general allegorical indication of the sad state of modern civilization in the early years of the twenty-first century.

[7] Shaviro, who lives in Detroit, suggests that the film might overdo the decayed status of the city a bit, suggesting that these scenes partake of “ruin porn.”

[8] When Eve first comes to Detroit to join Adam, we hear music as she rides in a cab on the way from the airport to Adam’s house on the fringes of the city. The source of the music is not entirely clear, but the song is “Gamil,” by the group Y.A.S., of which Hamdan is the lead singer.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Translated by Hannah Arendt, 1968. Mariner Books, 2019, pp. 166–195.

D’Angelo, Mike. “In Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive, it takes the unearthly to catalog our earthly delights.” Nashville Scene,8 May 2014, https://www.nashvillescene.com/arts-culture/film/article/13053773/in-jim-jarmuschs-vampire-movie-only-lovers-left-alive-it-takes-the-unearthly-to-catalog-our-earthly-delights. Accessed June 2020.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press, 1981.

Mansbridge, Joanna. “Endangered Vampires of the Anthropocene: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and the Ecology of Romance.” Genre, Vol. 52, No. 3, December 2019, pp. 207–228.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Shaviro, Steven. “Only Lovers Left Alive.The Pinocchio Theory, 10 April 2014, http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1205. Accessed June 2020.

Stępień, Justyna. “Transgression of Postindustrial Dissonance and Excess: (Re)valuation of Gothicism in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.” Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture 6, 2016, pp. 213-226.

Turner, Edwin. “Curation and Creation in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s Vampire Film.” Biblioklept, 20 May 2014, https://biblioklept.org/2014/05/20/curation-and-creation-in-only-lovers-left-alive-jim-jarmuschs-vampire-film/. Accessed June 2020.

Viars, Karen E. “There’s Water Here: Cities, Safety and the Global Environment in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.” The Global Vampire: Essays on the Undead in Popular Culture Around the World. Ed. Cait Coker, McFarland, 2020, pp. 128–140.