Only Lovers Left Alive has one of the best titles of any film this year, and is among the best films too. An exquisite ode to nostalgia and implacability, Jim Jarmusch’s latest stars Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a pair of impossibly gorgeous, timeless lovers. They’re vampires, of course, and in association with John Hurt, have contributed to much of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements (slipping a famous composer an adagio, for example).
The film lacks a strict narrative; it revolves somewhat around the growing isolation of Hiddleston’s Adam. Swinton plays his wife who is, of course, named Eve in what is the first of many delightful name jokes. Eve lives in Tangiers while Adam muddles around on his instruments in Detroit. He’s visited by Anton Yelchin’s Ian, a bedraggled muso type who brings Adam antique guitars.
The film is suffused with a love for old, beautiful things, and thus it ruminates mostly on the relationship between the two vampires. Eve has an associate in John Hurt’s Marlowe, who’s contribution to literary history is…not insignificant. They all have a love of famous aliases, ranging from Gatsby characters to famous scientists. They each mourn the loss of culture ushered in by the present wave of ‘zombies’—the humans that are destroying the earth they have walked for so long.
Jarmusch’s film can feel a little musty at times, if only because it is so content to languish in its surrounds. The only real point at which the pair acknowledge the viability of the present is bonding over a love of Jack White. Detroit makes for a ghostly setting—Adam lives on the abandoned outskirts of a city marred by bankruptcy. The cinematography here is gorgeous and Jarmusch’s framing is impeccable, perfectly capturing the sumptuousness of these ancient beings.
Their world is interrupted when the brash Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes to stay; she is young and hyperactive, clearly not having earned the world-weariness of Eve and Adam. She treats the blood they source and drink—which here evidently works as a parallel to recreational drugs—like it is perpetual, but the blood of the zombies is becoming contaminated. Much like the world they must silently occupy, their vital supply is becoming tainted.
Jarmusch paints this all—quite rightly—as deeply melancholy. His screenplay is one of the year’s best, with Swinton and Hiddleston draining lines for all they are worth. When Eve speaks of Detroit’s inevitable return to vibrancy—there is water there, she says, to draw away from when “the cities of the south are burning”—it feels like it might come true. Despite this, the film manages to end on a hopeful note.
It’s also so, so slyly funny. After Vampires Suck, you could be forgiven for thinking that vampires could never be funny again, but here their wits are as dry as a bone. Only Lovers Left Alive will not be to everyone’s taste—it is largely directionless—but it creates a universe that you want to be a part of. It is nearly impossible not to want accompany these two until the world dies and the blood runs out. If only we could.
[rating=4] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.