Jim Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive is a moodily lit, moodily acted languid piece of cinema that does not concern itself overmuch with story or character, yet strangely engages on both levels. Starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as a pair of centuries-old vampires who are, though they live apart, deeply in love and committed to one another, Lovers exists as much “in the now” as a movie can. It’s less a recounting of events and more like peering into an alternate dimension and seeing lives being lead in the moment. Time is, in many ways, the real protagonist of the story as the vampires have simultaneously too much and not enough of it.
Hiddleston is in full black-haired weirdo mode but his performance is very restrained and the most grown-up we’ve seen him as Adam, a moody musician who alternately indulges in fits of melodramatic depression and enthusiasm for science and scientists (the shout out to Tesla and his wireless power was GREAT—Adam visibly recoils every time he see tangles of electrical cords, knowing what could have been were Tesla not like, 200 years ahead of his time). But Adam’s first love is his wife, the luminous Eve, played by Swinton at her most disarmingly, charmingly open. It’s never explicitly stated but Eve seems to be a great deal older than Adam in vampire-time, and she handles Adam with both a lover’s passion and maternal exasperation, blaming his moodiness on all that time he spent with Lord Byron.
Lovers relies on its audience being smart enough to get the joke about Byron and artistic mopes because though its pace is slow and melodic, it does not pause to explain any of its references. It’s a smart movie but not pedantic. And the fact that the characters don’t stand around dropping exposition everywhere or explicitly reminiscing adds to the effect of timelessness—these are conversations resumed again and again over years, centuries, even, and Jarmusch, who also wrote the screenplay, gives his audience the benefit of the doubt, assuming they can keep up. And really, it’s not that hard. You don’t need a PhD to understand this movie, it’s just nice to see something made for grown-ups and that has no interest in courting the youth market.
Vampirism gets a refreshing makeover, too. Though Adam and Eve are both statuesque, strikingly beautiful creatures, they don’t sparkle or glow or any other disco ball bullshit. They’re nocturnal and they consume human blood, though it’s gotten hard for them to find the “good stuff” as people have become more polluted with…I’m assuming free radicals and pathogens. They never elaborate on what, exactly, the “good stuff” is (donated blood? Children’s blood?), but the implication is clear—humanity is compromised and vampires are dying off, poisoned by bad blood. That the movie is primarily set in the urban decay of Detroit underscores this—Adam is living a life of shabby-genteelism in his deteriorating Victorian mansion, seemingly the only occupied house on his block. The thing vampires and Detroit have in common is that both have been killed by human folly.
Time, which shouldn’t be a factor for the effectively immortal, has turned against Adam and Eve, and as the film ends you have to ask what really lies ahead for them. They’ve lived centuries’ of languorous lives of learning, art and each other, but we see them starving, borderline desperate to find more “good stuff” on which to subsist (vampires as addicts 101). Their future looks grim even as Eve reminds Adam that there is hope and beauty in the world.
This is a beautifully rendered film, full of Jarmusch’s dry wit, and it’s an unusually accessible turn from a filmmaker who delights in challenging his audiences. Lovers poses a lot of questions but it’s never confrontational or even really argumentative about it. Like Adam and Eve do, we’re invited to engage in philosophical debates in our dressing gowns (though I doubt any of us own a dressing gown as gorgeous as any in Adam’s collection) while indulging a cordial glass of the good stuff. Only Lovers Left Alive is very much the good stuff.