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.