If, while watching Twilight, you wondered whatever in hell a 100-plus-year-old vampire would really have to talk about with a teenager, then Only Lovers Left Alive is for you. The movie, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today before expanding to other cities around the country in the coming weeks, is the latest from indie great Jim Jarmusch, director of such impeccably cool films as Dead Man and Coffee and Cigarettes. It’s a vampire romance in which the central pair have had centuries to perfect their taste in music, art, and literature while growing increasingly distant from humanity. The film positions its vampires as the ultimate culture snob hipsters — oh, you want to quote Byron? Well, these guys knew him, and thought he was a pompous ass.
Tilda Swinton plays Eve, living beatnik–style in Tangiers when the film begins, while the equally pale and pointy Tom Hiddleston is Adam, a black-clad musician who’s retreated to a decrepit Detroit house to avoid the fans who occasionally try to seek out the artist behind the brooding songs he still occasionally releases. Adam has an eager human errand boy Ian (Anton Yelchin) who’s unaware of his employer’s supernatural nature, and who brings him vintage guitars for his collection and leaks his recordings at clubs. When Ian points out that Adam’s reclusiveness only serves to make people more interested in him, Adam’s response of “Yeah… what a drag” is a rock snob’s sigh, multiplied by decades of weariness.
Adam, who refers to humanity as “zombies,” is growing sick of existence among them, and a video call with Eve (the two are married, but like reasonable beings with eternity to live out their relationship, are fine living on other sides of the globe) sets off alarms that send her winging to his side — taking night flights only, of course. Reunited, the pair spend some blissful evenings together listening to records and downing goblets of medically tested O-negative — “the good stuff” — which hits them like heroin, the camera holding on their faces while they blissfully, briefly nod out. Eve, who’s older and more otherworldly than Adam, is less bothered by the destructive, wasteful tendencies of mankind he sees, talking him down from his suicidal tendencies by noting that history takes place in waves, and that he wasn’t around for the Tartars or the Inquisition.
Only Lovers Left Alive shares a dry, deadpan sense of humor with Jarmusch’s past movies — when one of its vamps gets sick after draining a human instead of the bloodsuckers’ preferred medical grade plasma, Eve snaps unsympathetically that of course the guy was contaminated, he was in the music industry. But it’s Hiddleston and Swinton who sell the concept and turn this sometimes very languid film into something charming. They make palpable the bond between the two immortals while exploring what a romance might be like if time weren’t an issue and if all the normal markers of it passing — children, old age — were gone. Dancing on Adam’s ancient carpet and taking nighttime tours around Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods, wearing sunglasses at night and making it look great, the pair legitimately seem like two people who’d be content in each other’s company forever as the rest of the world whirls on and changes…at least until Eve’s impulsive sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives to disturb their peace.
Only Lovers Left Alive approaches the high-traffic vampire genre with a playful attitude, but underneath is a unyielding faith in art. Art is what Adam and Eve have to live for as people come and go, art and each other, and they haven’t gotten tired of it. Adam still loves his music, the camera spinning overhead like a turntable as he listens to a record, and he caresses the instruments in his collection with reverence. Eve speed-reads her way through books with open wonder on her face. When the two stumble across a gifted musician (Yasmine Hamdan) singing in a café, all their pressing concerns drop away for a moment while they take in her performance. Jarmusch may have fun with Adam’s jaded rock star aura, but in this he’s sincere — work, when it’s good, can outlive anything, and can make life (or its undead equivalent) worth living.