Only Lovers Left Alive

by Elena Sarno


Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (OLLA) is helping me to understand why I choose to look into playful films (or filmmaking), and/or why playful films chose me even before I labelled them playful. It also helps in defining, or better said, sketching, what playful means and how playfulness animates some cinematic storytelling.

The way I am looking at OLLA here is not so much as an example for a playful film, but as a passionate/intriguing call, even manifesto, for playfulness as a strategy for living that beats the rational/biological model for survival based on causality, not only as a poetic system, but also as a pragmatic one.

Although I won’t go further into my evolving research today, the paradigm that OLLA proposes: playful living vs rational surviving, presents striking similarities with playful narrative vs canonical causal realism in film. It establishes an unusual yet fundamental connection between causality (including narrative causality), survival and play.

While causal narratives create a verisimilar world where everything in knowable, if not known, and the narrative economy is based on consequentiality, efficiency and precision, with a tendency to didacticism – playful films, while not betraying verisimilitude or even realism, adopt a wasteful narrative economy, with a tendency to forget about, digress, or even mock, causality and finiteness.

OLLA is a vampire film that overlooks classic vampire themes such as good and evil, the attraction or inevitability of darkness and cruelty, the impossibility of true (possibly eternal) love, the curse of the monster, isolation.

There are no vampire hunters or other immediate dangers. These vampires, having resolved their diet requirements very civilly, having found not only true AND eternal love but also friendship, only have one problem: passing time. And this is where Eve has refined her skills, with candid simplicity, a true savoir vivre.

This film, by shifting the axis of survival from biological (economic, efficient, causal, precise, accurate, scientific, all-explaining, all-knowable), which is not only about mastering survival techniques, but also about preparing and constantly polishing one’s life plan under the parameters of utilitarian efficiency and scientific modelling,  presents a paradigm for ontological survival, surviving time on earth, mastering the values and opportunities of the unplanned, aleatory and energy-wasting (clearly I refer to human energy and not keeping the lights on or driving to the corner shop…).

It isn’t just a version of entertainment and distraction as a therapy for depression or an alternative to boredom, although certainly psychiatrists (Brown) tell us that play IS a powerful natural remedy for common crippling mental conditions.

Play has been defined by most if not all scholars that have investigated it, beginning with the universally recognized authority in the field, the anthropologist Johann Huizinga, in his comprehensive study ‘Homo Ludens’, as autotelic, an activity that has no purpose other than itself. Huizinga states that play ‘serves no physical need and no moral obligation’. The opposite of survival activities such as eating …

It is the adoption of autotelic, or like Gadamer called it, nonpurposive play, as the basic survival tool, precisely to keep on living  –  to stay alive for many years and decades and if necessary, centuries – that elevates Eve to a higher understanding of life itself.

Autotelism goes with joy, fun, enchantment, entertainment, ecstasy. If you do something for the sake of doing something, it better be fun, especially if we are talking about survival. An autotelic action, in evolutionary terms, is not only a waste of time and energy, which would be better spent procuring one’s means of survival, but also a potential exposure to risk (i.e. a predator, or a bus, approaching while you spin round and round) – so if you engage in something as nonpurposive as dancing, it’s because you enjoy it.

The character of Eve, played by Tilda Swinton, is a survivor, she says so herself, in a throw-away if not nonsensical manner, that results quintessentially true. Adam has survived so far, but he is not as talented a survivor, and that is not because he’s not able to find good blood or because he recklessly exposes himself to external predators or takes any risks. From the biological evolutionary point of view, he’s perfectly equipped to survive, even comfortably (somehow vampires are always loaded), for as long as it takes.

Yet, his life is in danger (yes, being a vampire he’s granted immortality, but we all know that vampires can die, either killed by humans in gruesome and/or overly complicated ways, or by contaminated blood, like in this film, or exposure to the sun…).

Eve is often if not always playful, in a film that shuns speed as much as vampires avoid sunlight, she, although observing the pace of a record spinning (incidentally, it is perhaps the same rhythm as the film itself?), is always doing something, she is physically engaged in some activity, she is getting up, she is reading, she is spinning, dancing, walking, talking. Even when playing chess, she is constantly on the move, her metronome is always ticking. Adam instead has the exasperating stativity of a chess player the whole time, even when he plays the guitar he doesn’t tap his foot or move his head. He wakes up, but he doesn’t get up, he stares. Time passes for Eve, time drags for Adam. Imagine dragging yourself for centuries. Imagine dragging yourself for decades, feels like an eternity, whether you are a human or a vampire.

Without giving away too much of the film, I’d like direct your attention to Eve’s strategies for surviving time, which include a constant enchantment with nature, beauty and scientific inventivity, a way of being that is at the same time childlike and erudite, and that is part of a general attitude of non-seriousness, a proclivity to engage in play at every opportunity – to look at life as endless opportunity for play activities.

Two scenes in particular present Eve as the ultimate playful survivor, or as the French call it ‘viveuse’, literally one who lives, someone who knows how to live, who has cracked the secret to living: the chess game scene, roughly 50’ in the film, and the last few minutes of OLLA, when her playful ways, her refusal to be paralysed by the seriousness of the situation, her choice for redundant, energy wasting action, in fact buys them time and ultimately allows for a new source of life to enter their orbits.