Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’ antidote to the declining prestige of the vampire image.

In Jarmusch’ latest film a whole army of stars decides to test-ride immortality. However, even though Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, and John Hurt follow the vampiric custom and grow their hair, teeth and nails, rather than dipping their fangs in disoriented random victims’ necks they lounge on comfy velvet couches, listen to Bill Laswell’s vinyls and slowly sip hygienically obtained blood from crystal glasses, without spilling a drop… of course, there’s an exception to every rule. But without a doubt, the Jarmuschian vampire is light years ahead in terms of sophistication (and has a much higher IQ ) than any pseudo-vampire brood that the TV and commercial cinema hurled at the public throughout recent years.

There have probably been more vampires colonizing the all-sized screens than there are teeth in the shark’s jaw. Their favorite occupation has always been scaring the pants of poor humans. Their preferable genres, meanwhile, happened to be thrillers and horror films; however, sometimes they went beyond this codified framework. In teen flicks they’d put perfecto leather jackets on, bleached their hair and partied like rock stars – a’la Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys. They’d make us laugh taking Jim Carrey’s plastic face on in Once Bitten or assimilating Nicolas Cage’s neurotic gestures in Kiss of the Vampire. They were masterful seductors: disguised as upper-class New Yorkers with impeccable Denevue and Bowie looks (Hunger) or in a stylish costume covering Cruise’s and Pitt’s immorally lustful physique in Interview with the Vampire.

Another factor, vividly intensifying the vampirical erotic allure was, and still is, the female body, usually devilishly attractive and willingly objectified by the camera’s eye. From Dusk Till Dawn‘s Santánico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) appears in it just for a brief moment, but her erotic table dance with a python (!) is one of the more memorable scenes in the whole film. The strapless micro-bra conaisseur, immortal queen Akasha, played by the prematurely deceased singer Aaliyah, is worshiped to this day by vast numbers of B-class cinema lovers. Vampiric sexism is a topic for a separate article, by the way. Undoubtedly, through the course of the last couple of years, the way those immortal bloodsuckers are being portrayed shifted: from mysterious creatures who were thrillingly dark and dangerous outsiders to new icons of pop culture, on a massive scale.  The image of a vampire is now owned by the hottest actors in the entertainment business: Robert Pattinson , Alexander Skarsgaard , Ian Somerhalder or Kate Beckinsale .

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If there was a must-read list for the vampire-flick screenwriters, they’d have to study such iconic analysis as Claude Lecoteux The Secret History of Vampires, Erik Butler’s The Rise of the Vampire, or Maria Janion’s The Vampire – A Symbolic Biography. Unfortunately, the creators of Twilight, Underworld, and fellow multi-million productions are not in any way obliged to preserve fairness in their attitude towards the complex cultural symbolism of the vampire figure.

So they happily treat this multilayered structure as a frame, built from loosely assembled mystical rituals that can be filled with any, if attractive, content. Attractiveness is the key, but also a nail to the vampire coffin. In teen flicks, the act of sinking vampire teeth into the firm, underage flesh, has become a MPAA-acceptable substitute for defloration. The fascinating transgressiveness, constitutive for the vampire figure, has been replaced  with a marketable secretiveness, flattened to meet the popular demand. Inconceivable burden of immortality underwent several cosmetic treatments and turned into a concept much closer to Hollywood ideals: eternal youth . Vampire has become a pop star.

The most famous pop-vampires are still Twilight‘s Edward and Bill from True Blood. Both harbor the painful secretiveness, but their suffering never uglifies them. They are your perfect imaginary lovers: beautiful, honest and gallant. More importantly, humanitarian, both substituting human blood for animal or synthetic.  Just to do justice to True Blood‘s creator, Alan Ball – compared with Stephanie Meyer’s MTV-fied creation, his immortal is like a TGV placed next to a trolley. And also relatively ordinary in comparison with the Dark Path Chronicles vampire, Jurgen, who despite looking 23, is in fact 75 years old and, in his human life, was forcibly conscripted into the ranks of the SS. With quite an abundance of characteristics, “Vampire is the quintessential rock star “, the series creator, Mary Lambert, explains.

While becoming “sexy” and “trendy”, the seemingly invincible vampires have fallen prey to the one industry even more ruthless than themselves: advertising. The famous bloodsuckers’ image has already inspired panties, glow-in-the-dark soaps, diapers, condoms, shower curtains, and felt containers for tampons. One of the trendy sites still sells an Edward-shaped life-sized pillow. Vampires have influenced specially flavored potato chips and… erotic-gadget-designers, who invented The Vamp – an iridescent, pearly-sparkling vibrator, cold as an actual corpse’s dong. “Whether or not you’re into vampires, the Vamp is sure to please […] The Vamp really does seem like a bloodless, beautiful, undead cock,”  the producers claim.

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If Only Lovers Left Alive‘s protagonists could choose from those, they’d probably go for a glamorous roll of… toilet paper with Twilight‘s Edward and Bella wedding photo print. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eva (Tilda Swinton) are a completely new quality of screen biters, who — semi-unconsciously, I imagine — tackle the present day with ironic detachment, but without judgmental contempt. Sooner or later someone has to call them  hipsters; despite not falling into the popular beauty canons, there are also unrealistically attractive. Having no regard for fashion and trends, they’d make any hip New York club fashionistas bounce with excitement at their styling, which — even more hipsterly — as extravagant and eclectic as it is, is in fact a direct outcome of practical needs and customs.

Adam and Eve’s most important food is mature, full, wise love – and art. They probably drank wine with Shakespeare, played sticks with Byron and learned to smoke weed with Paganini. They are passionate devourers of books and music, not men, whose methods of acquiring blood are funnily conventional and boring, but not really romantic or picturesquely macabre. Jarmusch’s film is a robust labyrinth of intertextual references and meaningful winks. He’s attended to the smallest detail, having created comprehensive characters that he treats tenderly and seriously, never reducing them to a simple means of delivering the next portion of adequately-themed gadgets. At the same time this very characteristic story of love that fuels the bloodstream is also a fully relatable, universal metaphor that not only fascinates and moves, but disarms the viewer with its distinct sense of humor.

During one of the interviews, Swinton joked that, famously pale-faced and white-haired, Jarmusch himself is a vampire. “If we made Jim blush, maybe his hair would go pink” – she pointed out. “This theme of vampires is so natural for him. Mystery Train feels to me like a vampire film, Ghost Dog - isn’t that a vampire film? It feels like he’s actually been making vampire films all the time.” This could explain why, in his latest film, the legendary American director has so beautifully reinvigorated – and, paradoxically, updated – the mythical bloodsucking creature’s image, so strongly impaired and pauperized by the exhaustive pop-cultural misuse.

Thank you, Mr. Jarmusch.

About The Author

Anna Tatarska
Contributor

Anna Tatarska is a polish film journalist and critic. She's an author and presenter of the weekly Premiery Tygodnia magazine (Orange.pl) and Ilustrowany Magazyn Wężowy, a program dedicated to Poland's worst films. She collaborates with Movie Mezzanine, Fandor and Slant (US), and Zwierciadło, KINO, Aktivist (PL) among many others. Tatarska has worked for New Horizons festival, the American Film Festival, Off Plus Camera and Camerimage. She is a graduate of Film and Media Science at the University of Łódź, a graduate of Science of Culture at the University of Warsaw, as well as having completed a filmmaking course at the New York Film Academy. She writes a blog about film called sweetrush.