Elegant, somber, literary-minded, methodical in its pacing, otherworldy, inexpressibly sad, sometimes very funny and invariably beautiful, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is both one of the most unusual vampire pictures ever made and probably one of the best. I strongly suspect that part of the film’s inspiration comes from Ken Russell’s unproduced Dracula screenplay, in which great artists live for centuries by becoming vampires. (It suggests that Beethoven and Sibelius are the same person.) But what was for Russell only an idea has become the crux of Jarmusch’s film — and it’s every inch a Jarmusch film. The approach is mostly deadpan. The visuals are striking. The soundtrack is rife with 1950s pop music. The story is often indirect. The humor is quirky and occurs at unexpected moments. It is all quite wonderful, but if what you’re looking for is a gory bout of horror, this is not it. Oh, it’s in the horror genre, but it’s … well, untraditional.
Only Lovers Left Alive is essentially the love story of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Whether they are the Adam and Eve is not addressed, but they have been lovers for many centuries. When the film opens, they are living separate lives. Eve lives in Tangier, enjoying her existence and spending her time with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), and, yes, he’s that Christopher Marlowe. Even though he’s immortal, Marlowe’s mind tends to wander — though not without settling one of the great questions of literary history about the authorship of certain plays. Adam lives far away in a crumbling mansion in decaying Detroit where he works on his music (it’s suggested that he was Paganini) with the help of his “zombie” (what the vampires call humans) friend, Ian (Anton Yelchin in easily his best performance). He has no vampire friends, and he only goes out to buy untainted blood from a contact, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), in a hospital. (Untainted blood is rare commodity in the modern world — rather like virgin blood in Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula.) He also suffers from suicidal tendencies and general malaise — conditions that have long plagued him, it seems. His mood, however, is sufficiently gloomy that Eve opts to come for a visit (via a complex series of night flights).
To say that her presence perks him up would be overstating the case, but life is clearly better for him when she’s there — at least until her younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up. Ava is bad news all the way around. She’s a spoiled, vain, selfish party girl who has been spending her time in Los Angeles (“zombie central” to Adam — and probably Jarmusch). Not surprisingly, she manages to destroy Adam’s life in Detroit when she vampirizes Ian. (“You drank Ian!” rages Adam.) Even after disposing of the body in a vat of acid in a disused auto factory (“That was visual,” comments Eve at the skeletal remains), they opt to beat it to Tangier — using the names Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan — only to encounter new problems.
It is all brilliantly done — very nearly perfect. Jarmusch has crafted a film that feels like a wonderful, musty, old bookshop smells. It is rich in ancient promises with beauty found in the most unlikely places. The images of Adam driving Eve around the ruins of Detroit in his white Jag are both eerie and strangely wonderful. Every moment has something remarkable to see or hear or feel. But so much depends on Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the title lovers, and their world-weary, yet still active appreciation for the world of art and beauty. It is impossible to imagine two other performers in the roles. They are that perfect and believable. The pace and the lack of much traditional action is going to make the film difficult for some, but if you can tap into the film’s beauties and overwhelming sense of sadness at the passing of an age, it is remarkable — and a must-see — even if you’re not a horror fan. Rated R for language and brief nudity.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.