Existential exhaustion hangs heavily over Only Lovers Left Alive, which follows a pair of vampires who have spent centuries watching humanity from the shadows. They’re beyond exasperated by our folly – they’ve pretty much given up on us – yet this being a film by Jim Jarmusch, their tiredness comes off as an immortal form of cool.
It also helps that Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are the stars. He’s Adam, a gifted composer who once helped Schubert out and now anonymously releases modern-rock dirges from an abandoned mansion in derelict Detroit. (The wonderfully moody music is by Jarmusch’s own band, Sqürl, with the help of Jozef Van Wissem.) She’s Eve (yes, Eve), a literature enthusiast who lives among piles of books in a tomb-like apartment in Tangier. As opposed to Adam, she still regards humanity with a bit of playfulness. Hanging out with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), she encourages him to finally reveal that he did, indeed, write all of Shakespeare’s plays. “It would cause such thrilling chaos,” she says with a gleam in her eyes.
Although most of the action takes place in Detroit, it’s key that both Adam and Eve are connected to older worlds. Adam’s past in Britain is referenced here and there, while Eve’s home is an ancient city in Morocco. Even the New World locale of Detroit feels as if it’s been overtaken by history, especially as Adam and Eve drive down its empty streets and right into a grand theater that’s been abandoned to decay. Seen through Jarmusch’s lens, Detroit seems less downtrodden than on the verge of vintage.
Hiddleston and Swinton stand amidst these settings with an air that’s at once otherworldly and entirely rooted. If the actors have a shared gift, it’s the ability to inhabit theatricality naturally. (This is why they’ve both been so good in their respective blockbusters: she in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; he in The Avengers). In Only Lovers Left Alive, then, it’s very easy to take them seriously – even if neither of them seems to have combed their hair in 200 years.
Seen through Jarmusch’s lens, Detroit seems less downtrodden than on the verge of vintage.
There’s also something intensely romantic about their scenes together, largely because of the way they regard each other. As they share knowing looks and complete one another’s sentences, you believe Adam and Eve have spent centuries together. When they touch each other, it’s with the eagerness of reencountering flesh that’s excitingly familiar.
Beyond the two leads, Only Lovers Left Alive also boasts a handful of other strong performances. Hurt is melancholy and grand as Marlowe, while Anton Yelchin brings a comic touch to the part of a human who keeps Adam supplied with rare guitars. Mia Wasikowska, meanwhile, shows up briefly as Ava, Eve’s reckless younger sister, revealing a spiritedness I hadn’t seen in her before.
Ava is at odds with Adam because she still sees the world as full of possibility (and victims). Adam, saddened by the ways humans have messed things up, even to the point of poisoning our own blood, is nearing despair. In a playful twist on horror terminology, he even refers to people as zombies. “It’s the zombies I’m sick of,” he declares, “and their fear of their own imaginations.” Eve responds with a lovely speech about the wonders that still exist in the world, including dancing.
How do we respond, the zombie audience? I left Only Lovers Left Alive on a bit of a movie high, thanks to the performances and Jarmusch’s unhurried vibe, yet also somewhat chastised. We all have the tendency to be zombies – to go through life with blinders on, unaware of the wonders around us, not to mention those we might be capable of creating ourselves. If Adam and Eve are indeed the only lovers left alive, then, it’s partly our own fault.