Just when it’s time to call a moratorium on vampire movies, Jim Jarmusch has to go and make a good one.
As unlikely as it sounds in the era of “Twilight” and its defanged imitators, Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” proves there are still new sights and sounds and meanings to be derived from the conceit of characters who rarely sleep, never die and who feast on the blood of others. In the hands of the godfather of late 20th-century American independent cinema, the sensory pleasures are extravagant, the approach both wry and profound, and the greater meaning well worth searching for, even within a tired, overworked genre.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” begins with the first of frequent God’s-eye-view shots, in this case of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), who are splayed out in their respective flats in Detroit and Tangier like two junkies on the nod. Heroin chic and high-gothic romanticism form the aesthetic language of a film that, in its painterly composition and rich detail, is one to luxuriate in rather than merely watch. As an example of Jarmusch’s far-flung restlessness in recent years, “Only Lovers Left Alive” may be about two relatively hermetic souls, isolated by the blessing and curse of eternal life. But its canvas is hyper-connected and cosmopolitan, both literally and in its deeper concerns, whether about global warming or the fragile human project of nurturing each other and our best selves.
That humanistic message is most urgently delivered by Eve, played by Swinton as the 3,000-year-old Thin White Duchess of eternal wisdom and power, who has been living for the past hundred years or so with the playwright Kit Marlowe (John Hurt), discreetly looking for the perfect hemoglobin fix on the same streets that Paul Bowles and William Burroughs once prowled. Adam, for his part, is an analog guy living in a digital word, holed up in Detroit, his apartment filled with vintage guitars and musical equipment, his needs tended to by an eager young follower named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who worships Adam as an underground rock god. (When Adam lets slip that he saw Eddie Cochran play a flawless Gretsch that Ian admires, he quickly remembers to add “on YouTube.”)
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Eve is serene in her knowledge of history’s pendular dips and lurching progress, but Adam is far less, er, sanguine. When Eve finally travels to Michigan to sort him out, it’s as if she’s leaving one living ruin for another. The plot thickens and goes a bit anarchic (and macabre) with the arrival of Eve’s sister, Ava, played by Mia Wasikowska. (“It’s always a bit weird with family,” Eve says philosophically.) But as these world-weary bohemians embark on their peregrinations through darkened Detroit, “Only Lovers Left Alive” becomes a rueful, often ravishing study of a civilization teetering on the very brink of extinction.
Jarmusch has written a funny, archly intellectual script which calls on Swinton – here seen at the height of her otherworldly creatureliness – to drop the Latin names of everything she sees with understated nonchalance. She’s the perfect match for the painfully skinny Hiddleston, and together they make a cultivated pair of ivory-skinned wraiths, twinned and twined through the ages, keeping their bloodlust at bay with courtly manners, elegant taste and an abiding belief in the power of art, science and philosophical inquiry.
It all sounds far too precious, granted. But as carefully conceived and curated as the film is, Jarmusch and his excellent cast skillfully maintain an air of unforced ease. When it’s gradually revealed that Eve, Adam and their fellow vampires are engaged in an existential battle with another group of supernatural creatures, Jarmusch’s point becomes clear and it’s a clever one, indeed.
With its shots of Detroit’s classic Fox and Michigan theaters (the latter now famously a parking lot), “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an elegy to a great city, one that Eve knows, with an oracle’s certainty, will one day rise again. “When the south is burning, this place will bloom,” she softly predicts. Invoking everyone from Descartes and Tesla to James Joyce and Jack White, Jarmusch finely balances didacticism with off-kilter humor. As with all his best films, he resists self-seriousness with a series of dry, on-point jokes (witness a priceless one-liner having to do with the music industry).
That’s not to say that “Only Lovers Left Alive” has nothing serious to offer, because it does – in an improbably passionate plea to the human race, facing its own existential twilight, to embrace its best enduring values of beauty, nature, intellectual daring and self-renewal. Leave it to Jarmusch to transform an epicurean obsession with type O-negative into something atypically positive: In his capable hands, a film about the undead becomes a fierce, funny and stylish argument for life.