If Broken Flowers (2005) was in a certain sense a distillation of the blue period that Bill Murray had entered upon teaming up with Wes Anderson in 1998, then Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is a crystallization of how Jim Jarmusch has been subtly caricaturing his own boho persona over the last few years. He guest-starred as himself on the third episode of Bored to Death, turning Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan Ames down for Charlie Kaufman revisions on his new film about New York School poet Frank O’Hara. “I do make a new film every, like, four years or so,” he said, giving Ames hope while encircling him on a vintage bicycle in an empty loft. “You should write another book, man. I’d definitely read it.”
That episode aired a few months after the all too limited release of The Limits of Control (2009), which is arguably Jarmusch’s most lyrical and cerebral work yet. Borrowing its title from a provocative essay by William S. Burroughs, the film is a meditation on the psychic ramifications of the modern military industrial complex cloaked in a laconic crime story à la Jean-Pierre Melville. Isaach de Bankolé stars as the Lone Man, a hired gun who traverses Spain on a mission that involves exchanging codes with various transients, played by an eclectic array of international art house actors including Hiam Abbass, Youki Kudoh, and Gael García Bernal. Along the way, from the Reina Sofia to the streets of Seville to the plains of Almería, he also crosses paths with Paz de la Huerta as a seductress in nothing but a transparent raincoat, John Hurt as a guitarist who muses about the legacy of bohemians, and Tilda Swinton as a practically albino cowboy entranced by the movies. It all might seem horribly affected, of course, if it were taken out of the context of this fairly tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating moment in Jarmusch’s career.
Jarmusch has always been disarmingly humble in interviews, but in discussing Limits of Control he appeared unusually open to viewers’ own meaning-making, encouraging psychoactive mushrooms as an aid if necessary. (This isn’t some throwaway ’60s nostalgia, by the way: Jarmusch is an amateur mycologist, and showcases some fungus in Only Lovers Left Alive.) The film indeed works at the level of a trip—or a “minimalist exercise ... best appreciated as a pure image-and-sound event,” as Manohla Dargis wrote, damning it with faint praise—but the climactic encounter between the Lone Man and the American (sic; Bill Murray again) encapsulates the film’s deeper project of interrogating the monolith of post-9/11 global capitalist values in the so-called Information Age. Jarmusch puts forth a startlingly sincere image of the artist up against the Man, as it were. The former accomplishes great feats with the power of his imagination, while the latter parries, “You people don’t know how the world works!” This is only one layer of a film so densely packed with thoughts and textures that the hermeneutic possibilities seem limitless. (A new book, The Jarmusch Way: Spirituality and Imagination in Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and the Limits of Control, barely scratches the surface, overlooking many key intertexts, and even the fact that de Bankolé’s suit had appeared in Ghost Dog.)
Only Lovers Left Alive, which premiered at Cannes last May, shares with Limits a deep apprehension about the contemporary moment and its hostility to creativity. Similarly, it clothes this cultural critique in wildly reworked, yet still familiar, genre trappings. Tom Hiddleston and Swinton star as Adam and Eve, two star-crossed vampire lovers who have capitalized on their immortality by insatiably sipping at the fountains of knowledge (especially music and literature). If this already sounds like a personal film, given Jarmusch’s and Sara Driver’s long relationship and their mutual erudition, then the characters’ chosen resting places only serve as further evidence. Adam makes guitar-driven music from his home in Detroit while Eve shares a blood supply with Christopher Marlowe in Tangier. Jarmusch, who’s recently been more musically active than ever in his own right, thus gets the opportunity both to return after three decades to the Rust Belt and to pay tribute to the Moroccan city that inadvertently caused a recent resurgence of cinephilic interest in Driver. (A print of her fascinating 1981 Paul Bowles adaptation You Are Not I resurfaced there in 2010.)
The film’s beauty stems from its send-up of fame, a part of which is self-directed. Jarmusch plays with the ways in which we think about Great Men and Women across history, deflating their exalted status by alluding to them as a motley crew of Adam and Eve’s dearly departed friends while also pumping them up. Portraits of these geniuses cover one wall of Adam’s house; writers such as Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe share the space, of course, with past Jarmusch collaborators like Robby Müller and Claire Denis. This last move ought to be taken not as hubris but—like the scene in which Eve swoons at the sight of Jack White’s house in Detroit—as comedy. Adam and Eve, after all, are caricatures of a certain bohemian imaginary that we might project onto Jarmusch and artists of his ilk, as reclusive, perhaps a bit nocturnal, and more likely than not subsisting on something other than food. If Jarmusch wanted Adam and Eve to resemble him and Driver at all, then it was perhaps to poke fun at their current status as dinosaurs in a downtown New York now dominated by luxury-condo-dwelling upstarts with six-figure starting salaries.
Such an image resonates with the one that closes the text that inspired Only Lovers Left Alive: Mark Twain’s “translation” of The Diaries of Adam and Eve. In the epilogue to the imaginative reworking of the opening tale of Genesis, Eve sits alone on a park bench in 20th-century Manhattan, marveling at the throngs of people, all her descendants, swarming about. After a western starring one William Blake and a Zen treatise on the “limits of control” with an epigraph from Rimbaud, an adaptation of a forgotten turn-of-the-century novella cross-pollinated with a story of a rock ’n’ roll vampire might sound a bit contrived. But that, as the excess of literary allusions (and an artful scene of book porn) emphasize, is just the point. Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch’s foray into self-reflexive authorship in the tradition of Cervantes, fittingly preceded by The Limits of Control, a quixotic fantasia on the Iberian Peninsula. Given the ultimately candid political commentary at the heart of Limits, and the romance of Lovers, this could be the most personal stretch in Jarmusch’s career since the 1980s.
Permanent Vacation: The Films of Jim Jarmusch, a complete retrospective of the filmmaker’s work, will run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from April 2 to 10. Jarmusch’s latest feature, Only Lovers Left Alive, opens on April 11.
JOSEPH POMP is a PhD student in Comparative Literature and Critical Media Practice at Harvard. His writing has appeared in Film Quarterly, Film & History, and Senses of Cinema.