Hipsters use culture as currency. They are cool because they knew about x first, were reading y before it was adapted into an HBO series, or are wearing and making z because people were wearing and making it way back when they really, truly knew how to make z something special. Going off of the caricatures of mass media, their legitimacy and coolness is based on the purity of their connection to the past. A stereotypical hipster seeks out history before it happens, something rare and special that will become the next vinyl record or handlebar moustache. They are despised for being insincere in their interest in art, music, and quirky unicycles, nostalgia enthusiasts grasping to look genuine against the backdrop of the present.
The vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive are desperately sincere. They buy and strum age-old guitars or piece together computers from 1950s television sets, knowing full well the past is where they’re from and what they’re made of. The monsters here don’t spend their time hunting down teenagers (either for food or companionship) but hunt down things according to their aesthetic pleasure.
When Eve (Tilda Swinton) opts for a night flight from Tangier to Detroit to meet up with her husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), after what may be several years apart, she loads her suitcase with nothing but the books messily piled in shelves inside her all-white apartment. She doesn’t pack clothes or food, despite her obvious thrill when drinking blood a few scenes earlier. No, she thrives on the pleasure of her books, her passionate taste in literature rather than human juices sustaining her — at least for the moment. Similarly, her passion for her husband isn’t just expressed in loving glances and worry, but objects of beauty. She describes for him a newly-discovered planet made of compressed carbon, an enormous diamond orbiting somewhere in the universe that “makes a sound like a gong.” Her implication is that there are always new things to discover, that there are riches to delight in forever if one is immortal.
This makes Only Lovers Left Alive stand out as a film, much less a movie about the supernatural. Most of the vampires here may grouse and refer to humans as “zombies,” but they are delighted to be living in the 21st century, much less Detroit. They don’t mind being remarkable and young forever, chatting idly over chess while they eat blood popsicles in what is probably one of the movie’s most delightful scenes. Adam and Eve are defined by the things they take joy in.
The titular vampire detective from Angel looks on his immortality with guilt and Louis from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire is ashamed of his past crimes. Hiddleston’s Adam reflects this, but unlike them, he loves being a vampire. He spends most of the film depressed as he plays music and clings to the out-of-date technology in his house, but he never seems heartbroken to not be human. He and Eve prefer each other and their shared interests, Eve as enchanted when Adam drives her past Jack White’s childhood home as if he had written her a sonnet.
And that’s how Adam and Eve spend most of the film. Potential plot lines meander their way, but they never take hold. The characters are too busy caressing guitars and discussing Nikola Tesla.
It’s this blind nostalgia that, for me, pushes the film too far. Like the much-maligned stereotypical hipster, they mistake their good taste for genius. They stop being authentic as soon as they push to prove how very authentic they are.
After all, Adam and Eve couldn’t just be random vampires in love, they had to (it’s implied) go and name themselves “Adam and Eve.” Adam doesn’t only make beautiful music, he has to have written an adagio for Schubert. He also appears to be required to namedrop all the people he’s met in his long life, like Byron and Iggy Pop, as if Eve somehow wouldn’t remember after years of being a couple. With Tom Hiddleston already looking pale, weirdly Victorian, and as consumptive as any poet, I doubt we need to be reminded he’s older than he looks.
And while it’s wonderful to watch Tilda Swinton act with John Hurt, who plays the Elizabethan playwright-now-vampire Christopher Marlowe, the revelation that he’s the true author of Shakespeare’s plays is unsatisfying. He’s Christopher Marlowe, for goodness’ sake! Not only is speculation on the “true author” of Shakespeare’s plays overdone, it distracts from the idea that the real Marlowe was already a really good writer who died at 29 before he could surpass the Bard.
Perhaps the dearth of references are the film’s attempt to be humorous, but the attempt to imbue the characters with as many connections to history as possible backfires. These vampires are already legitimate. They have their connections to the past and high culture. Why does the film upset the beauty it sustains and make its characters ancient hipsters?
Mia Wasikowska shows up as the far perkier Ava, a Los Angeles vampire who doesn’t have much interest in art. She proves to be an entertaining source of displeasure for Adam, whines like a child, and creates some of the film’s only real conflict. In a moment of anger, she also labels Adam and Eve as “snobs.”
They are. That’s fine. Good art and music doesn’t need to be loved by everyone, but it needs to be appreciated. Like hipsters, however, it’s disconcerting when that appreciation is used as cultural currency, a ploy to make the characters seem as cool as possible. They already are.
Like hipsters, the film is much better when it’s confident in itself and its own identity. Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t care it’s on the tail end of the vampire craze. Its moody, dark Detroit, its unabashed love of vinyl records and 19th century bathrobes, its music — all these things speak for themselves. Why prove these characters are cool and mysterious when they already are?