Offbeat, languorous, worldweary, and crammed with hipster in-jokes, Only Lovers Left Alive is a a lush, poignant, intelligent piece of horror poetry; a moody fantasy love story with swaths of succulence for you to sink your teeth into; and a nighttime reverie that incidentally celebrates a marriage that has lasted untold centuries.
Vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston, The Deep Blue Sea) is a reclusive musician living in Detroit; his wife, vampire Eve (Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin), lives in Tangier. Each survives on tidy blood-bank donations from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) and vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), respectively. After the lovers unite in Detroit, Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives from Los Angeles and disrupts the couple’s idyllic seclusion, forcing a retreat back to Tangier under blood-withdrawal.
Only Lovers Left Alive is basically a pallid double act between Swinton and Hiddleston: two old souls in hot bodies who have tired of the earth, but have nowhere else to make their home. Stuck in low-velocity drift, they are sensuous creatures giving depth to the vampire hagiography, connoisseurs of art and oenophiles of blood, delivering their lives with the dry sighs of a desert breeze, swanning and swooning through eternity, joyful at the opportunity to be together forever.
In many respects, Adam and Eve are nocturnal cousins to the angels from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire: they’re immortals – burdened by disappointment – watching over a decaying city, secret observers of history, living records of the past with little control over the future. But writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers) has no interest in guilt or grief. Instead, he accomplishes the neat trick of reinventing a moribund genre as a distinctly Jarmuschian hangout movie. Merely encountering and observing these characters do nothing proves to be engaging. He even makes Detroit scenically romantic.
Jarmusch finds horror not in the extreme, but in the mundane. You don’t so much watch this movie as slink into it, joining an unlikely pair of lovers and enjoying their slouchy elegance. Although not quite as good as the comparisons suggest, it’s a mingling of Lost in Translation, Before Sunset, and Let the Right One In. It requires a willingness to swing between amusement and delight, with periodic pauses at ennui. It’s so fluidly edited and thinly plotted that it feels almost off-hand, so languidly poetic that it feels like the story just spontaneously accretes around its characters.
Yet it’s made with great care, droll, disarmingly direct, and charmingly directed, beautifully lit and set-designed to an eyelash, shot through with dry humour, with the certainty that even things meant to last forever actually don’t. It’s about the transcendent bond between partners who can communicate without speaking a word. With its retro-chic connoisseurship and analogue era rock, this is a brilliant haute-hippy homage, pumped up with cool-as-a-bloodsicle eye candy.
Somber, literary-minded (with references from Shakespeare to Infinite Jest), and inexpressibly sad, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the most unusual vampire pictures ever made and perhaps one of the best. It’s also an enthralling lament for an era in which beauty is in danger of becoming extinct. Even vampires get the blues. Twilight, busy with teen crushes and werewolves, forgot to ask the most interesting question of all: Is time not the sharpest stake in the heart?