Last night Patty and I went to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which is an oddly thoughtful and sweet movie that I smiled through nearly all of it. The quibbles I had with it were largely quibbles I have about all of Jarmusch’s work and so aren’t really of note; I am simply not quite the perfect audience for his work.
What has lingered with me however, is the film’s relationship to AIDS. All modern vampire films have one, of course, whether they intend to or not. And Only Lovers Left Alive‘s is troubling.
A young vampire behaves promiscuously and causes a great deal of trouble, her actions blamed on blood poisoning. Kit Marlowe (yes, gay! atheist! spy! Kit Marlowe) also dies from drinking contaminated blood towards the end of the film in a scene I found quite moving thanks to the grief of his student Bilal (played by Slimane Dazi). That Adam (Tom Hiddleston) declares he wants the girl (and not the boy) in a kissing couple he and Eve (Tilda Swinton) attack at the end of the film felt like another minor thread in a discomforting construction of an unnamed AIDS.
That the source of contamination is, of course, mortal humans is less interesting than the fact that they are referred to throughout the film only as zombies: We are all slow and we are all diseased. Modern zombie films also touch heavily on AIDS allegories for the “one drop of blood and you’re dead” trope that raises the specter of the early years of the epidemic in the U.S. (often referred to as “the plague years”).
Only Lovers Left Alive is a lovely film, filled with great warmth and delightful oddities. But while also suggesting uncomfortable questions and viewpoints about gentrification and colonialism, it seems very much like a throwback to a certain type of fear — and judgement — about AIDS, who’s at risk, and what the moral landscape is around sickness.
My friend Becca notes that, if you’re into astrology, we’re in a sort of Saturn return for AIDS/HIV. If you’re not into astrology, basically, we’re telling AIDS stories again all of a sudden — because some of us have forgotten and some of us finally feel like we can talk about the trauma. From last year’s Dallas Buyers Club to HBO’s upcoming The Normal Heart, we’ve returned to a certain narrative place lately, and in light of that, it feels impossible to exempt Only Lovers Left Alive from that particular landscape.