Beneath Jim Jarmusch’s cool, hipster veneer beats the heart of a romantic and he proves it with Only Lovers Left Alive, a paean to the constancy of love wrapped in the tale of a vampire couple, soul mates for centuries. Horror nibbles at the edges for the ethereal twosome played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, but what resonates in this gorgeously photographed, often darkly funny drama is their unconditional devotion to one another.
Jarmusch says he took inspiration for this tale from Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Somehow from that congenial author’s fables about the biblical first humans, he glimpsed these ultimate outsiders. And while they may be bloodless, undead creatures, they also may be the warmest in the filmmaker’s universe. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a morose, reclusive rock musician, living among a huge vinyl record collection and a pile of vintage guitars in the ruins of Detroit. The more exuberant Eve (Tilda Swinton) resides in luxury in a beautifully appointed, book-filled home in Tangier. Though separated by geography, these opposites are as one.
Adam and Eve are also living in a dangerous time for their kind. Their food source, human blood, is no longer reliable. What runs through the zombies’ (as Adam derisively refers to mankind) veins is too often tainted. Eve has a reliable supply of the good stuff from the couple’s friend, playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Adam’s connection is a doctor (Jeffrey Wright). But when Adam and Eve come together again in Detroit, a reunion they celebrate with a night out clubbing with Eve’s wild child sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) and Adam’s human friend Ian (Anton Yelchin), their well-ordered lives fall apart, and along with it their connections. The couple is soon on the run and thirsty, very thirsty.
That need to feed prompts fear, but also soul searching for these creatures of the night. Is it time, at last, to reclaim their mortality? Ava calls them snobs, and they are. Scrounging for blood is at odds with the sophisticated images they present to the world. Death as an option would satisfy their vanity. Shuffling off the immortal coil together would be one last grand romantic gesture. It’s something to consider, anyway, on a long night in Tangier.
There is a lot of beauty in Only Lovers Left Alive, starting with the ravishing leads and Yorick Le Saux’s shimmering cinematography. Even Detroit’s desolation looks alluring in the film’s evocative nightscapes. More than its pretty stars and beautiful photography, it is Adam and Eve’s enduring passion that makes this Jarmusch’s most appealing film in years. The vampire trappings, the deadpan humor and the dangerous situation that threatens them are almost beside the point. One gets the feeling that if Adam and Eve’s hearts could still beat, upon seeing each other, they would beat a little faster – even after hundreds of years. –Pam Grady