What does it mean that the most excruciatingly romantic films of the last few years are about vampires?
The association of vampires and romance is hardly new, to the point that the ostensible incompatibility of monstrosity and seduction has, arguably, lost all charge–owing not only to the contemporary popularity of Edward Cullen, but also to the more quotidian ‘bad boy(/girl)’ of whom vampires often seem the supernatural amplification. Conventionally, what vampires offer to love is the appeal of being ravaged, owned, and remade; the vampire may be courtly and sophisticated, as Gary Oldman’s ringleted Dracula courting Mina Harker, or domineering and insatiable, as in Jan Berger’s 2010 We Are the Night, and its allegorical potential is supple enough to accommodate feminist, queer, and even interspecies desires.
But if in much of this history, vampiric romance has focused on seduction, Jim Jarmusch’s languid Only Lovers Left Alive traffics not in the fantasy of being taken by a figure of power, but in the vision of what comes centuries after the taking: an intimacy based less in sexual decadence or even proximity, than in duration.
Before the ruinous events precipitated by Eve’s (Tilda Swinton) sister’s visit, the film’s patience stylistically realizes what plot (or initial lack thereof) enacts: time, spread out, such that the conventional units of a romance (e.g. meeting, perhaps marrying) are relatively obsolete. Eve and Adam play chess and rearrange themselves across furnishings in the manner of teenagers with an indefinite summer vacation unfurling ahead. In addition to reflecting on the conditional resilience of certain spaces, then, Only Lovers also works to redeem the romantic value of the Long Term Relationship: a stability to which other, more human apparatuses of seduction–such as the femme fatale–typically pose a threat.
Films often express vampiric power through superhuman speed: think of how Eli’s entrance reverberates through the pool in Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), or of the pouncing attacks in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Yet these films, too, counterpoise speed with slowness, because romance obtains through vampires not simply in the felt urgency of life or death, but in the prospect of time in perpetuity. Only Lovers’ hypnosis, then, is in imagining, as if through the “Funnel of Love” heard in its opening, a love that distills as it persists.
Love is Old Fashioned
Veronica, you know my affection for this film, so it was a real joy to read your take. Particularly I'm interested in your evocation of speed and slowness. The film seems to take specific interest in juxtaposing new (fast) and old (slow) technologies that also suggest much about the changing nature of love. For example, I'm thinking about Eve's iPhone in comparison to Adam's rotary phone; driving through Detroit in an old muscle car then jetting across the country in a jet plane; Adam's philosophical disgust with contemporary electrical riggings and passion for vintage instruments, etc. For me, this all comes to a head when Eve's sister shows up, displaying a lack of care for material possessions after arriving from LA, a "plastic" throwaway town in comparison to Detroit's majestic urban decay. In one sense, it seems to me that Adam and Eve married because that was possible at the time, institutions were a place of stability, comfort, and peace of mind, although certainly with their own struggles and complications. The work of a longterm relationship, a labor of love, would seem to make that institution more valuable because of the time and care put into it. And, it would seem, provides a thematic backdrop for the automobile factories now abandoned for locations offering faster production methods and cheaper labor costs. In this way, I'm wondering if the former (love) is not tellingly about the latter (liquid culture), and vice-a-versa, about how speed alters perception and love gets somehow lost in the present.
Love and economy.
Thanks for this, Adam. I'm particularly taken with your suggestion that the abandoned factory presents another outmoded "relationship." I agree that speed and duration both alter perception in such a way that an intangible like love can seem only to exist when it has seemed to exist for a long time: this being the (crude) logic of anniversaries. When Eve's sister arrives from LA, she's a maw asking for more–blood, fun–which is arguably more familiar vampire behavior compared to Eve and Adam's austerity. She comes, then, from a different economy, to one in which plenitude is not just unsustainable, it's impossible. What's interesting to me in bringing love back into this, is that Eve's familial love for her sister–at least as it manifests in her toleration–reaches its limit, because her romantic relation to Adam is all-encompassing. Think too of how they prey on the young lovers. In this sense, they are equally mercenary toward their "resources," and love and longterm survival are inextricable.
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