Only Lovers Left Alive
Opens Fri., May 2 at Guild 45th and Meridian. Rated R. 123 minutes.
Given the subject matter—centuries-old vampires, decaying places, boredom with immortality—Only Lovers Left Alive might easily be a dreary slog through genre territory. Instead, Jim Jarmusch’s new film is full-bodied and sneaky-funny, a catalog of his trademark interests yet a totally fresh experience. It’s his best since Dead Man (1995), stirring evidence that the longtime indie darling is back as an expressive force.
Our two principal vampires begin the movie in different parts of the world. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a denizen of Tangier, where she slouches around the atmospheric streets at night. Here Jarmusch creates an entire imagined city from a few well-chosen shots of plaza, wall, and a cafe called the Thousand and One Nights. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives in Detroit, where he creates arty rock music and collects guitars. Adam needs Eve, so she joins him for sessions of nocturnal prowling (daylight must be avoided, so she sticks to red-eye flights). Swinton and Hiddleston tease out just the right amount of humor from their roles, and John Hurt is briefly glorious as a certain writer whose best work happened 400 years ago. One does not expect much in the way of plot; and when Eve’s reckless sister (Mia Wasikowska) comes to town, it almost seems like an intrusion. The pace has been so languid and luxurious until then, you might actually resent this suggestion that a story is threatening to break out. Why would vampires need a storyline? They live on without much change or growth, and can’t even look forward to an ending. So Jarmusch’s dilatory style actually suits their world nicely.
The film’s gorgeous design contrasts the desolation of Detroit’s empty streets with bohemian interiors. (Adam’s pad, with its papered-over windows and cool bric-a-brac, looks inspired by Mick Jagger’s house of magic in Performance.) The timeless vampires seem depressed about what has happened to the world; humans—Adam and Eve use the generic term “zombies” to describe the rest of us—have made a terrible botch out of such promise. All one can do is cling to culture and wait out the decline, holding tight to the books and vintage LPs and centuries-old apparel that serve as markers of a better time. Only Lovers offers a handy metaphor for addiction, and perhaps Jarmusch was reaching for that—the protagonists live at the mercy of their suppliers, and they get really sick when blood is scarce. But that would limit the proceedings to a single meaning. This film’s decadence is much more fun than that.