Jim Jarmusch treats genres the same way children treat their Christmas toys—as endlessly fun things to batter around, and if they break in the process, well, at least you can’t say they weren’t enjoyed thoroughly. His version of a Western was the poetic, deadpan Dead Man. His idea of an espionage thriller was the off-kilter aloofness of The Limits of Control. His samurai movie was Ghost Dog. So it should be no surprise that his take on the vampire film would be uniquely his own. Thankfully, Only Lovers Left Alive is the farthest thing from a commentary on Twilight. It’s as if the two movies don’t even exist on the same planet, which, in terms of their temperament and humor, is quite accurate.
The writer-director’s latest stars Tom Hiddleston as Adam, a disgruntled musician hiding out in Detroit. A vampire for centuries, he stays at home, only going out to visit a local hospital where he collects his latest stash of blood from one of the lab technicians (Jeffrey Wright). But his ennui is broken somewhat by the arrival of his longtime lover Eve (Tilda Swinton), also a vampire, whose bratty younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) pops in as well, wanting to party.
As is often the case with Jarmusch’s films, Only Lovers Left Alive is less about plot than it is about mood and feeling. The overriding sensation while watching this movie is that, all in all, being a vampire (especially in modern times) would be a mixed bag. Reconnecting after much time apart—she was in Tangier—Adam and Eve are blessed with permanently youthful looks, but their loving relationship is peppered with sadness. The years they’ve lived through are weighed down by the memories of eras that have come and gone. And the “zombies”—their name for humans—are proving more and more disappointing over time, their inability to evolve as a species a source of deep frustration. And then there’s the business of obtaining blood. Fearful of contracting diseases—zombies are just filled with the things—Adam and Eve have to seek out premium suppliers, the notion of sinking one’s teeth into a random human a long-antiquated practice.
Only Lovers Left Alive is remarkably funny, but it’s the sort of barbed humor that tries to keep sorrow at bay. Channeling the effortless cool that’s been Jarmusch’s trademark since his terrific early efforts like Stranger Than Paradise, Hiddleston and Swinton play their characters not as blasé hipsters but, rather, deeply reflective, almost regretful old souls who seem to have decided that love is about the only thing you can count on. For all of its cheeky humor—one of the best running gags concerns how much undercover vampires have influenced humanity’s cultural breakthroughs—Only Lovers Left Alive is actually quite a poignant little reflection on getting older and feeling increasingly more irrelevant. (That’s why Wasikowska’s presence as the callow Ava is even funnier: She’s the closest thing the movie has to the typical sexy-young-dangerous vampire character, and she’s a pain in the ass.)
Almost all of Only Lovers Left Alive is set in the dead of night, and Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux vary the tone of their nocturnal scenes. Sometimes, the nights feel menacing. Other times, they recall the sleepless evenings left staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened to your life. And then on other occasions, the movie has a seductive, romantic spirit. The stakes may not be particularly high in Only Lovers Left Alive, but that’s part of Jarmusch’s point. When immortality is a given and your only concern is finding fresh blood, your life in some ways loses its urgency. And so like the movie they’re in, Adam and Eve drift and drift, finding their amusements where they can.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright
Release Date: Screening in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival