A Portrait of the Artist as a Vampire in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

A Portrait of the Artist as a Vampire in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’
© Photograph by Luca Foscili

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a survey of world cultural history revealed: “the constant presence of a vampire or vampire-like monster in narratives — both grand and humble — and popular culture” (Hallab 1).

A “context-bound fantasy” which “alters through time as the creature is required to incarnate different ideological messages” (Cavallaro 181), the image of the vampire has been so pervasive in world cultures due to its extraordinary versatility and ability to appeal and adapt to the fundamental fears and desires which characterise the particular age in which it manifests itself.

This article seeks to explore the manner in which Jim Jarmusch’s recent independent production ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013) reinterprets the nocturnal figure of dread in a love story which transgresses time, space, and the expectations of the genre, by sidestepping the horror and the (sexual) violence usually exploited by vampire tales.

It is my contention that Jarmusch’s sophisticated and delicate pair of vampire lovers can be regarded as emblematic for the condition of the contemporary artist in an increasingly alienating world, arguably an Other trapped by an environment that nurtures limited possibilities of creation and regeneration.

I believe that from the vantage point provided by their centuries-old existence among their human counterparts, the cultivated couple of feral beings advance a critique of present-day civilisation and embody an alternative to mass society and culture, while at the same time becoming the unlikely carriers of a humane and compassionate message in a contemporary world in crisis.

In ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, Jim Jarmusch’s creative vision reaches beyond the conventions of the genre and crosses borders in more ways than one, thus infusing it with new blood. Proving that indeed “vampires are no respecters of boundaries” (Weinstock 309) and that under the new pressures of an increasingly changing and interconnected world “the vampire has gone global” (Abbott “Celluloid Vampires” 215), Jarmusch’s vampire love story transgresses not only generic formulae but also geographic borders in a highly transnational production.

According to Martine Beugnet, the modern vampire seems “destined to thrive within this new global era ruled by transnational flows and the seemingly irresistible law of universal, deregulated greed” (qtd. in Hutchings127). Only ‘Lovers Left Alive’ is a good illustration of this recent development of the genre not just in point of its cinematic setting but also with respect to its funding. Filmed on location across continents in cities such as Detroit in the United States, Cologne and Hamburg in Germany, and Tangier in north-western Morocco, with funding pouring in from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Cyprus, and with the main cast consisting of British, American, and Australian actors, Jim Jarmusch’s film literally is a border-crossing piece of cinematic work.

It thus embodies the transnational expansion of the genre and speaks once again for its appeal in an interconnected global world. In order to delineate more clearly Jarmusch’s original contribution to the established genre of the vampire story, my discussion of the film will be preceded by a short overview of the more traditional vampire figure in both literature and cinema.

Rooted in Eastern European folklore, the vampire was initially been of peasant stock, fed on his or her family members or neighbours and served chiefly to explain the spread of diseases or sudden deaths in the community (Punter and Byron 268) in an era when the mechanisms of contagion were unknown, thus “giving human shape to viruses and bacteria” (Day 12). In this sense, vampires often worked as metaphors for the unexpected eruption of diseases, especially venereal, which, like vampirism itself, were believed to originate in Eastern Europe ( Cavallaro 181).

In Romanian villages, for example, up to modern times, it was generally believed that together with marginal categories of people (such as the Jews, the Gypsies, the Turks, or the Armenians), the vampire was responsible for the emergence of epidemics and natural disasters ( Rădulescu 77).

Another reason which underlies the association of the dark creature with Eastern Europe seems to be the latter’s isolation from the modern world and from the rationalist ethos of the Enlightenment (Cavallaro 182). With this in mind, the more reason-oriented eighteenth-century Western Europe endeavoured to do away with the traditional fears accompanying the mysterious, bloodthirsty being that they regarded as the emanation of ignorant, superstitious, barbarous peasants, by taking a scientific or pseudoscientific interest in the matter.

Rather than clergymen, it was doctors and scholars who were being called upon to explain the meaning of life, death and, most importantly when it comes to the reanimated corpse of a vampire, the plausibility of life in death. Like the sceptical Doctor Chillingworth in James Malcolm Rymer’s ‘Varney the Vampyre or the Feast of Blood’ (1847), the more rationally inclined West was out to prove that the existence of vampires “is contrary to all experience, to philosophy, and to all the laws of ordinary nature” ( Rymer 275). As a result of this influx of vampire superstition from Eastern Europe and especially from the Balkan area, the devilish child of the night became a recurrent image in the Western fiction of the times as the ultimate embodiment of the Other.

One of the most significant alterations of the vampire myth took place when the dark figure moved from folklore to literature, as it changed from peasant to aristocrat (Punter and Byron 269). In this respect, John William Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819) is the first tale in literary history to have “successfully fuse[d] the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre” (Miller 7).

Derived from the folklore vampire but also famously modelled on the flamboyant Lord Byron, Polidori’s undead Lord Ruthven brought to literary history the staple features of the aristocratic vampire, later on, established by Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1871) and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897), among others. The Byronic vampire was a tall, gaunt aristocrat clad in funeral-like attire, pale-faced and with demonic eyes, whose wide mouth with unnaturally red lips revealed fang-like teeth. In spite of his ominous appearance, Lord Ruthven’s seductive power and magnetic personality allowed him to victimise countless young women through the by the now established method: “upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein” (Polidori 48).

As the occasional great seducer, the dark creature triggered the association of vampirism with sexuality broadly understood — rather than venereal disease — and with extreme manifestations of passion. Moreover, with its transfer to the silver screen in the twentieth century, the vampire added yet another layer of polish and seductiveness. Reminiscent of the figure of the vampire from folklore and even of such transitional literary figures as James Malcolm Rymer’s Sir Francis Varney, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movies usually portrayed the nocturnal shapeshifter as a monstrous figure, an epitome of the abject and the outcast, as the embodiment of pure evil and the ultimate Other. It often exhibited prominent animal-like features — sharp rat-like teeth, tentacle-like ears and fingers (Cavallaro 184) — and nausea-inducing rank breath (Stoker 18), conjuring up the dread of atavism and degeneration characteristic of the late Victorian period (Carter 624).

However, as they left the countryside to become city dwellers and traded their dark cape for the mantle of civilisation, contemporary vampires departed from their classic image as terrific, bloodthirsty, violent critters of the shadows and gradually turned into articulate, eloquent, cultivated, and highly empathetic nocturnal beings, who have developed a consciousness and have started narrating their own stories, ultimately rejecting the old predatory habits of their species and deploring human cruelty.

For instance, Les Daniels’s ‘Don Sebastian de Villanueva’ (1978–1991) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s ‘Saint-Germain’ (1978–2014) cycles of novels reveal that the vampire’s rapaciousness cannot, in fact, be matched by the atrocities and historical catastrophes inflicted by human beings to one another along the centuries.

It has been further argued that “even as killers and destroyers, modern vampires often appear minuscule compared to the vast impersonal forces of war, big government and multinational business” (Hallab 38). As Carole Senf notes in her study dedicated to the centuries-old being, “the vampire is no longer a cruel mirror of mankind’s worst violence, but a cultured outsider who observes and comments on this cruelty” (5), and as “vampires become more attractive (in literally every sense of the word – attractive physically, morally, and intellectually), their human counterparts become more horrifying” (Senf 3).

What is more, the vampire no longer indulges in solitariness and complete isolation from the rest of the world but craves companionship and intimate bonds — with human individuals, but especially with creatures of its own kind. In Whitley Strieber’s novel The Hunger (1981), for instance, whose film adaptation (dir. Tony Scott, 1983) has been regarded as a precursor of Jim Jarmusch’s take on “vampirism as a playground for attractive bohemians” (Burr), the female protagonist would relentlessly try to turn her male lovers into a sort of human-vampire hybrid in order to share her immortal condition with one of her kind.

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