Only Lovers Left Alive is one of Jarmusch's most alluring films stylistically, but the self-conscious, often silly script makes it hard to indulge in its sensual wonders.
Only Lovers Left Alive
You couldn’t ask for two actors better suited to play a couple of sharp-featured, hipster vampire lovers than Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, two actors who’ve hit the absolute peak of coolness at this point in their respective careers. And who better to direct them than Jim Jarmusch, the indie godfather who always seems to be ahead of the curve stylistically, speeding down the roadway we call cinema in his own lane? Sadly, Jarmusch falls behind the curve in Only Lovers Left Alive, a tiresome love story that’s too fascinated with cleverly subverting (it thinks) vampire lore to say anything truly interesting. Is Jarmusch’s exercise in aimless chatting a unique take on bloodsucker cinema? Yes. But he so aggressively concerns himself with subverting the myth that film becomes burdened by it.
Hiddleston plays Adam, an underground indie musician who lives in the forgotten American wasteland of Detroit, swimming in vinyl records, antiquated electronics, and vintage guitars dropped off at his grungy house by his innocent “zombie” (human) stoner buddy named Ian (a perfectly casted Anton Yelchin). His lover of centuries, Eve (Swinton), lives in Tangier, stuffing her nose in piles of dusty old books in every language and meeting with her old friend Marlowe (John Hurt) at a late-night cafe. (Yes, you can actually see hipster-stench wafting off of the screen.) Marlowe is irritated that he never got credit for writing Shakespeare’s plays, one of many obnoxiously presented wink-wink jokes about immortality aimed at fans of vampire fiction who have probably heard this stuff a million times.
Eve flies to Detroit to reunite with her precious Adam, and a steamy reunion it is–their passion for each other hasn’t dwindled a bit over the hundreds of years they’ve been canoodling all over the world. Hiddleston and Swinton sizzle, and their fiery scenes in close proximity are the film’s most engaging. The film slyly suggests that the world’s greatest artists were all members of a sort of vampire aristocracy, with Adam’s wall adorned with a gallery of portraits of supposed vamps (Buster Keaton, Joe Strummer, Mark Twain, Claire Denis, and others). Jack White even gets a shout out, as Adam and Eve drive by his childhood home on a nighttime drive through the city. The marriage of vampire lore with artistic icons is unique and intriguing at first, but it’s prodded and poked to death by incessant referencing.
It seems as if Jarmusch thought long and hard about how to represent vampire life in ways never seen before. He finds new angles. Adam and Eve get their blood in purified packets from doctors (the great Jeffrey Wright) and friends–human blood is so packed with impurities these days that sucking straight from the throat is a health risk. Their taste in the arts is so hyper-sophisticated because they’ve soaked up several lifetimes worth of music, books, and stage performance. Makes sense. Eve makes tasty Type-O blood popsicles, a culinary invention that seems pulled from the vampire section of Pinterest. These plays on the genre are clever, but add very, very little to the story at hand. Light chuckles at best.
But there isn’t much story to sink your teeth into, anyway. That’s not what Jarmusch is aiming for; leave that stuff to Stephanie Meyer. He’s defining the attitude of a culturally refined, endangered generation so repulsed by the vapid state of young people that they’re driven to the brink of suicide. (Adam has the eager Ian fetch him a wooden bullet, which he intends to off himself with. That is, until Eve shows up to perk him up and rekindle his will.) The film is perhaps more interesting as a piece hipster fiction, using vampirism as a metaphor to explain their endless love for old, tattered things.
As a hangout movie, Only Lovers is sometimes great, with Hiddleston and Swinton’s seductive repartee slipping off their tongues like melted butter. But again, vamp references distract and derail scenes often. The production design by Marco Bittner Rosner is luscious and brilliantly captured by Jarmusch (he’s a master at that). There are loads of edgy, stylish images throughout the film, like the opening shot of a starry night sky spinning and spinning until it takes the shape of a spinning vinyl record in Adam’s abode. Only Lovers Left Alive is one of Jarmusch’s most alluring films stylistically, but the self-conscious, often silly script makes it hard to fully indulge in its sensual wonders.