Suppose you met a vampire one night. You’d probably have some questions. If the first ones that came to mind pertained to the monster’s taste in music, I have news for you. You’re actually either Jim Jarmusch or Ana Lily Amirpour. This was the approach that both directors made, almost concurrently, to the time-worn horror concept in their piquantly titled films Only Lovers Left Alive and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Amirpour acknowledged the similarities in an interview, describing the two stories as “vampires contemplating loneliness and human existence over centuries of time.” These vampires have souls. In fact, they themselves might argue that they have a stronger capacity for feeling than everyone else around them. Ever since Bela Lugosi first donned a cape, vampires have been impossibly cool, but rarely, if ever, have filmmakers luxuriated in this coolness the way these two do. This choice is made at the expense of things like shock and violence (with a few exceptions), but it makes for great mood pieces.
In Jarmusch’s two leads, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, we find a strange amalgamation: the tall, spindly Count Orlok type mixed with the long-haired rocker. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the familiar rules of the vampire’s existence are doled out sparingly, all the better to spot the analogy of a rock star’s drug-induced lethargic decadence. Even when Swinton’s Eve speaks of their “third wedding,” it would not be so difficult to imagine they’ve merely had a hot-and-cold romance for decades, were it not for the nineteenth-century photograph she’s holding. The vampires’ bloodlust translates cleanly as an addiction, and an increasingly rarefied one at that. Jarmusch’s theme is humanity going to seed in the twenty-first century, and his first, most potent example of this is the fact that vampires don’t bite live humans anymore because our blood is contaminated. They have to raid hospitals or hop continents for friends’ private stashes. This need for a pure fix is the source of the movie’s minimal plot, which begins with Hiddleston’s Adam experiencing suicidal ideation, despairing over the state of the world.
The Girl of Amirpour’s title, given no other name over the course of the film, is also fed up over the state of things, for even plainer reasons. It’s right there in the title, that traditionally fraught scenario of the vulnerable young girl threatened by predators and pimps. But this girl has nothing to fear. The amalgam that Amirpour hit upon was between that old cape, shrouding the monster in shadow, and the chador worn by Muslim women in Iran. The Girl, played by fellow Iranian-American Sheila Vand, glides through the night with a cold stare. She uses her powers to enjoy these nightly strolls in safety, and also to exert vengeance on the petty cruelties of men. The story takes place in the fictional “Bad City,” putatively in Iran though the film was shot in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The streets in this town are eerily quiet at night, but everyone that the Girl does meet is in for a confrontation of some kind, whether they get out alive or not. She steals a skateboard from a kid and starts riding it around. Like the vampires who play guitar in Jarmusch’s film, this could easily have been a kitschy joke, but these filmmakers have zero inclination to point out the absurdity.
Despite the ageless immortality of vampires, Jarmusch and Amirpour also seem to have written the roles to fit the ages of the actors playing them. Adam and Eve, then, are essentially middle-aged, feeling nostalgia for the superior art of their youth. There are times the movie gets a bit too literal with these complaints. Adam derisively refers to humans as “zombies” (a low blow, though not entirely inaccurate). A recurring joke about supernatural assistance in the great music and literature of the past recalls both “ancient aliens” conspiracies and the gag in Men in Black where every famous oddball is secretly from outer space. Instances like these tend to pierce the movie’s contemplative bubble, if only for a moment. In the other film, the Girl, though she could be just as old as Adam and Eve, has a more youthful — that is, active — approach to life. The posters for musicians from “before her time” register as typical teenage girl precociousness. As in so many movies about youth, what she ultimately wants to do is get out of this town.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in a closed, provincial single location, a desert town surrounded by oil derricks. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the whole world is revealed to be a dead-end town. Adam cloisters himself in a fallen Detroit because it’s as good a place to die as any, and because the thriving culture it has lost mirrors his own lost sense of purpose. One dark joke that really works in the film is the suggestion that a side effect of climate change will be Detroit’s resurrection, because “there’s water here.” Adam and Eve might warn the Girl that the places outside of Bad City aren’t much better. For all their intercontinental flights (always the red-eyes, of course), they still find themselves trapped, with few resources and fewer friends, and not all that much to do after centuries of reading everything, listening to everything, studying everything. There apparently aren’t enough vampires in the world to form even a secret society. Likewise, the Girl is completely alone, though she meets a human boy named Arash (Arash Marandi), who seems to understand her in some mysterious way. His rebel-without-a-cause combination of hairstyle, white T-shirt and car awakens a more hopeful turn for the Girl. Before they abandon Bad City, she asks him to help her with that prototypical adolescent rite of passage, piercing her ears.
Yes, these vampires have fangs, and they use them at least once before the credits roll. But the Girl’s are retractable, and Adam and Eve avoid showing theirs when they talk. Mostly, these characters are just people — people who very occasionally need to demonstrate preternatural speed and strength (via special effects that are somewhat awkward in these contexts). People with a unique perspective, and something of a superiority complex. Above all, people who enjoy good music. The mix of reverberating, dirgelike rock and Middle Eastern styles that can be found in both films (as well as some Morricone-esque flair in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) is an endless source of pleasure. The laconic-yet-sumptuous visual styles of these films, the unhurried pace, the astonishing attractiveness of the lead actors — these things all work toward an aesthetic of coolness. But it’s the music that finishes the job.