POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 9, 2014
With their finely chiseled clavicles and cheekbones, their nocturnal habits and exquisite taste, Adam and Eve are about the coolest couple you could imagine. (They are played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, which definitely helps.) Adam lives in a vast apartment in the picturesque ruins of Detroit, surrounded by vinyl records and vintage guitars acquired by an eager young gofer named Ian (Anton Yelchin). Eve haunts the alleys of Tangier, speed-reading old books in every known language and lingering in an all-night cafe with Christopher Marlowe, who still regrets, five centuries after the fact, not receiving proper credit for Shakespeare's plays.
It is part of the conceit of "Only Lovers Left Alive," Jim Jarmusch's latest slow-burn celebration of art, style and aimless conversation, that old Kit Marlowe (a marvelously grizzled John Hurt), one of the original literary outlaws, is alive and well, if a bit weary. Dwelling in a city associated with latter-day writer-renegades like William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles, Marlowe is Eve's confidant and mentor. He also supplies her with human blood, since both of them (and Adam too) are vampires.
Yes, another vampire movie. But Jarmusch is not Stephenie Meyer, Swinton is not Kristen Stewart, and, despite its title, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is less about sex than about art. Vampirism, in other words, serves in this film as a metaphor not for insatiable desire, but for passionate creativity. Jarmusch imagines the tribe of the undead as a kind of aesthetic aristocracy, counting in their ranks most of the world's geniuses of painting, fiction, cinema and music. Byron and Shelley are name-checked, while Adam's walls are hung with portraits of Buster Keaton, Mark Twain, Robert Johnson and others.
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While it is not specified that all of these artists were vampires, it is clear that Adam, Eve and their dwindling ilk are especially sensitive to certain forms of beauty. They are muses and critics. (They also have a lot of time to read and listen to music while the rest of us sleep.) Part of the pathos of their situation is that the ordinary humans Adam and Eve derisively call zombies have lost or squandered the ability to appreciate art. When Eve visits Detroit, Adam shows her the Michigan Theater, a once-grand, now-decrepit movie palace and a symbol of his own malaise. His depression, triggered by the zombies and their vulgar ways, has brought him to the edge of suicide. Eve has come to cheer him up.
When you live for hundreds of years without the inevitability of a natural end, there is no reason to hurry, and Jarmusch is a practiced hand at slow filmmaking. What sustains "Only Lovers Left Alive" is less a story than a sensibility, an attitude of nostalgic and somewhat cranky connoisseurship. Plots are for squares, which is not to say that nothing happens.
Adam and Eve are not the type to go out and bite necks: They purchase their nutrition from medical professionals and drink it from long-stemmed goblets. But the film does not hesitate to make another familiar metaphorical link — one between vampirism and addiction. After these vampires taste blood, their heads roll back and the room starts to spin. When supplies dwindle, things grow desperate in a hurry. It is also clear that not everyone manages the habit as well as Adam and Eve, as demonstrated when Eve's wild sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), comes to visit.
There is something a bit musty about a romanticism that equates creativity with chemical dependency, and also something a little threadbare about the countercultural mystique that Adam and Eve embody. They are undoubtedly seductive, and anyone who shares their musical, literary and cinematic interests will luxuriate in their company. But this elegy for the tradition of the cool has a defensive, even reactionary undercurrent. At bottom, it's a generational protest against the zombie kids and their enablers, digitally distracted creatures who don't appreciate the tactile, sensual glories of the old things.
I can sympathize, but I'm also a bit unnerved to see one of the avant-garde heroes of my own vampire youth turn conservative. In many ways, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is among Jarmusch's most voluptuous movies — full of gorgeous images and sounds, heavy with sighs and sprinkled with wry, knowing jokes — but it is also thin and pale.
Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times