The Thin Man with blood cocktails, an ode to hipsterism through the ages, a mainline shot of cool and a playful tribute to artistic fetishism, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive is an addictive mood and tone piece, a nocturnal reverie that incidentally celebrates a marriage that has lasted untold centuries. Almost nothing happens in this minor-key drift through a desolate, imperiled modern world, and yet it is the perennial downtown filmmaker’s best work in many years, probably since 1995’s Dead Man, with which it shares a sense of quiet, heady, perilous passage. A modest-sized but ardent audience will support this Sony Pictures Classics pickup in domestic release April 11.
Vampire stories come in all shapes and sizes and the blessed and afflicted couple here is well-dressed, madly sophisticated, has impeccable taste in music and literature (the couple’s closest friend is Christopher Marlowe) and is still in love like newlyweds. The woman’s younger sister considers them condescending snobs, but perhaps that’s just a negative way of acknowledging that, given hundreds of years of years of exposure to art and culture, one would be a fool not to have developed a high level of discrimination in such matters.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has become quite the recluse. Holed up in an old house in an abandoned part of Detroit, he plays vinyl classics and collects rare vintage guitars brought to him by roadie type Ian (Anton Yelchin). In the not quite as depopulated streets of Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton) seeks out Marlowe (John Hurt), whose Shakespeare connection is bandied about. More to the point, however, is his value as a source of “the good stuff” — purified blood their kind can reliably consume now that human — aka “zombie”– blood has become dangerously contaminated.
This represents an unambiguous drug addiction reference, to be sure, but it also casts these vampires as an endangered species and, increasingly, as potential tragic figures, avatars of cultivation, sophistication and monogamous devotion that put average humans to shame but may be doomed now that their food supply has been ruined. For his part, Adam sometimes receives “good stuff” from a medical facility supplier, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright).
When, at the 40-minute point, Eve returns to Adam in Detroit, there is instant rapture, a perpetuation of the presumed longest love affair in the world (a photo documents their third wedding, in 1868). With the spirited Eve the driving force in the relationship more than the laid-back Adam, the two British-accented connoisseurs loll around the house, listen to great music, drink great blood, speak about old acquaintances (Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft), are looked down upon by a photo gallery of artistic heroes (Buster Keaton, Mark Twain) and take a nighttime tour in Adam’s old Jaguar coupe of decimated Detroit, which implicitly represents what the “zombies” have made of society.
To Adam’s irritation, they are soon joined by Eve’s wild girl imp of a sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), whose reckless vampiric ways so disrupt their domestic tranquility that the couple decides to decamp back to Tangier, where Eve can count on a continued supply of good stuff. When this is compromised, a thimble of doubt and suspense enters the equation, as the ancient pair contemplate their fate on a wander through the city so beloved by Paul Bowles and the Beats. Will this be the end, or might they actually have to deign to descend from their tower of refinement and rejoin the hunt?
To outsiders and the film industry, Only Lovers Left Alive might seem like an arty, left-handed attempt to make a genre movie and attract unsuspecting horror and even Twilight fans. To those who have followed Jarmusch’s career from the beginning, the film may rather be read as a coded text and perhaps the closest attempt by the enigmatic, adamantly independent director at veiled and self-consciously twisted autobiography. Certainly Jarmusch’s own known artistic tastes are completely represented by those of the retiring Adam, and the ambiance of zoned-out, highly specific connoisseurship fits perfectly with the preferences he has exhibited in his prior work.
The vibe consistently maintained here is mellow, resilient, knowing, unhurried, self-conscious and fixated. Dramatic urgency and surprise are way down on the list of concerns, which is, of course, what has always consigned Jarmusch to the commercial sidelines. But after some recent slippage on projects in which the cultural and narrative incongruities sometimes felt forced and unharmonious, even some silly jokes and stretches devoted solely to listening to music go down with just minor burps.
Swinton is quite wonderful and unusually accessible here in a generous, emotional, tender performance. With a recessive partner mostly devoted to interior experiences, Eve must do most of the work to animate their relationship and Swinton, wearing long, nearly platinum-blond hair, gives herself to this enterprise without going over the top. Hiddleston, with the longhaired look of a rock star, is required to be far more withdrawn but is a credible bohemian for the ages. Wasikowska supplies antic, intentionally grating abandon as the dangerous sister, Yelchin is sweet as Adam’s flunky and Hurt presents his 16th century playwright as a crusty old wise man.
Physically and musically, the film is lovely.