In Only Lovers Left Alive, sunglasses are in, garlic is out.
I was going to skip seeing Only Lovers Left Alive because the promotional blurb described the plot like this: “Set against the romantic desolation of Detroit and Tangier, an underground musician, deeply depressed by the direction of human activities, reunites with his resilient and enigmatic lover.” Ugh. I do not need to endure two hours of a condescending musician moping about his life. I’ve seen enough of that. Also, reveling in the “romantic desolation of Detroit”? Just stop.
But then I found out that Only Lovers Left Alive stars Tilda Swinton as a vampire. Why didn’t you say so?! I am 100 percent in favor of sitting through two hours of Vampire Tilda Swinton, regardless of the circumstances.
Only Lovers Left Alive is the newest film from Jim Jarmusch, who looks suspiciously like a vampire, come to think of it, but is better known for his work as the writer and director behind thoughtful, meandering films like Broken Flowers and Coffee and Cigarettes. His new film has a similarly dreamy, lush, pretentious vibe as those earlier works, though this time the story centers on a low-key vampire couple who wander around listening to music, driving cars late at night, dealing with a club-going little sister, and discussing their feelings in roundabout ways.
The lovers are quite the stylish pair: Vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) dresses entirely in black and Vampire Eve (Tilda Swinton) dresses entirely in white. Relationships function differently when you’re immortal, clearly: the two have been married for about 150 years and lead rather independent lives, caring for each other sincerely though they make their homes on different continents. While the film’s promotional description frames Adam as the center of the tale (the underground musician reunites with his lover, it’s apparently not a story of two characters of equal importance loving another), Eve actually gets equal—if not more—screen time than her emo husband. She’s certainly the more compelling character of the two; Swinton carries the film, creating a subtle character that feels empathetic despite her distance the from trials and tribulations of the human world. When Adam holes up all morose in his Detroit house, focused only on his loathing toward the world, Eve has the emotional wherewithal to both recognize his pain and to confront him about it. Her Eve is not an “enigmatic lover”—she is a unique woman who has developed a rich and specific life of her own even as she provides emotional care to the blood-hungry friends and family she loves.
Eve, relaxing in her book-nerd fantasy mansion.
As it rolls along, the film languidly explores what people would do if they were to live forever. What people would do, apparently, is develop impeccable taste. The don’t gulp down blood, they sip it from crystal like a fine wine, dropping wads of cash to acquire “the pure shit” directly from hospital blood banks. Eve and Adam consume culture in a similarly restrained fashion—Eve fills her suitcases with the best books of many languages, while Adam keeps himself busy with a house full of the finest instruments and vinyl. They’re essentially rock-and-roll hipsters to the extreme, looking down on the tastes and abilities of human “zombies” and being mortally obligated to wear sunglasses even at night. However, unlike like their condescending human counterparts, these immortal rock-and-rollers contribute great works to society: over centuries and under pseudonyms, these vampires pen world-altering plays and release groundbreaking dance music.
The film is mostly a fun, sweet character study, but it’s enjoyable flow is marred periodically by its own desire to be cool. If the heavy handed, black-and-white, Adam-and-Eve setup doesn’t cause audiences to roll their eyes from the outset, the characters’ frequent literary references will. When the characters pull out their fake passports, for example, their chosen names are Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan. That kind of “are you hip enough to get this?” smirking is instantly tedious.
However, those distasteful moments don’t sour the entire film. The best parts of the film are when Swinton and Hiddleston’s characters feel grounded in humble details: how Eve and Adam fall asleep together with their legs entwined in a familiar way, the slow way the pair dances when Eve lays the needle down on a new record, the adorable and disorderly way Eve sits on the sofa with her unruly younger sister. Without the skill and style of Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers would join the growing shelves of intolerable vampire flicks. As it is, the film is worth a late-night viewing. Just make sure to bring your sunglasses.
Writer Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor. She most recently reviewed Under the Skin.