Writer/director Jim Jarmusch has said that he’d “rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China.” What I suppose he means is that he is more interested in character and setting than in big stories or A-to-B-to-C plotlines. This isn’t to say that his films meander. They do tend to be slow-moving, but they’re also tightly focused on setting a mood for a place and a time and exploring living in that moment. Or, in the case of Only Lovers Left Alive, exploring unliving in that moment.
The “moment” in the film is modern-day Detroit and Tangier, where two of the world’s remaining, and oldest, vampires reside. We’re never told how old Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are, but it is certainly suggested that their lives span millennia, not just centuries, and their love affair is at least as old as our nation, if not centuries beyond that. Though married (several times, throughout the centuries) they currently live apart for reasons that are not explained. Adam is holed up outside of Detroit while Eve is in Tangier, Morocco, and although they’re far apart, they are still very much in love and talk regularly thanks to the modern technology that is Skype. In the early going, the film is focused on looking at how each live on their own. Despite being so incredibly old, Eve still has a lust for life, reading vociferously and enjoying her simple existence. Adam, meanwhile, seems to be suffering from depression and has secluded himself away, only interacting with Ian (Anton Yelchin), a fan of his music who helps Adam get the things he needs from the outside world (like helping him fulfill his current obsession, vintage guitars).
Eve eventually travels to Detroit, and is later joined by her sister, the younger vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska). While there is a semblance of a plot that moves on from there, Jarmusch remains uninterested in a strong narrative thread. Instead, Only Lovers Left Alive is interested in exploring this centuries-old love between Adam and Eve, while playing in the world of vampires. As Jarmusch explains: “It’s really a love story. The vampire story is nice because it gives it this overview of time. But it’s essentially a love story.” Vampires take life from others to live (though, here, Adam and Even have devised alternative ways to get blood), but in this world they also give something back to humanity in the form of art. These vampires are sophisticated and educated and either on their own or through another, they have contributed some of the greatest works of literature and music (and, presumably, other forms of art) that have since gone on to live in the same undying way as the vampires themselves. Adam laments, in fact, that humanity has a “fear of their own imaginations” which has stifled both art and science. It’s a clever play on vampires, eschewing the horror “vampires are evil and hate humanity” angle for something far more nuanced, although Ava’s characterization suggests that this may be something that only comes with time for vampires.
While Only Lovers Left Behind really does “play” in the world of vampires, it is not terribly interested in the mythology. Vampires here drink and need blood, of course, and the film toys with the recent trend of focusing on vampire addiction by filming the drinking of blood in a way that makes it seem akin to shooting up heroin. And though the film touches on some common vampire tropes, like needing invitation to cross a home’s threshold or being killed by wooden stakes through the heart, many go unmentioned or unseen and there is no explicit outlining of “rules.” The movie also adds some mythology of its own, including vampires wearing sunglasses at night, having wispy hair that is almost dreadlocked, and wearing gloves whenever they’re outside. The reason behind some of this is made clear, though the gloves remain a mystery which Jarmusch has explained simply as: “[W]e had something that was ours that we invented. And we thought it looked really cool. Very important criteria.”
And this is a film that very much wants to look cool, with a rock-and-roll esthetic exemplified by Jarmusch’s description of Adam as “like Hamlet, as might have once been played by Syd Barrett.” It’s a very “cool” esthetic that is going to work for some, and put off others. Where a viewer falls on the use of overt stylization like this will have a major impact on their overall opinion of the film. I really dug the look and feel of the film, and therefore loved spending time in this world even in the moments where not much is going on.
Only Lovers Left Alive is not without its problems, however. Those esthetics are not accessible to everyone, for instance, and while Jarmusch attempts to bring some levity to the film with sprinkles of humor, the jokes themselves often feel too cute and broad in what is otherwise a nuanced piece.
What cannot be denied, however, are the fine performances. Although Wasikowska’s performance may be too broad for some, John Hurt knocks it out of the park with a smaller role, and Hiddleston and Swinton are their usual fantastic selves. Hiddleston plays Adam exactly as Jarmusch described him, and his Adam is both tortured artist and intimate lover. The nuanced differences in his performance when Eve is around versus when she is not show his love for her more than any words can. Swinton is spectacular. She often plays dour or downright depressing characters, but here, it’s a pleasure to watch her fill Eve with a surprising warmth, sensitivity and humor.
Only Lovers Left Behind screened at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival.