Pale-skinned, blood-sucking creatures of the night, spend their time listening to obscure music and traipsing around the ruins of Detroit. No, this isn’t a documentary about Midtown, but you can be forgiven for thinking so. These are the subjects of Jim Jarmusch’s latter-day vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive, a film that revels so much in its own obscurity and hipness that it’s nearly absurd. However, this film is saved from smug pretentiousness by treating everything with a fair dose of humor and actually living up to it’s ambitions, every so often.
Only Lovers Left Alive concerns the lives of two vampires who have been married for centuries. The first, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), lives in an isolated house in Detroit making music, only interacting with Ian (Anton Yelchin), his enthusiastic and helpful gofer, and Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), his less eager blood supplier. The other, Eve (Tilda Swinton), lives in Tangier, reading books and getting her blood from a vampirized Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Adam eventually asks Eve to come visit him, but also gets stuck with Eve’s rambunctious younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Much of the rest of the film is spent listening to Adam and Eve muse on music, literature, the state of the “zombies” (what they call normal humans), and anything else they’ve encountered in their centuries of undeath.
The style of the film can be reasonably described as “cool,” or at least a certain kind of self-conscious, very intentional cool. This is no new territory for Jim Jarmusch, director of such films as Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and Broken Flowers, but here it feels somewhat different, almost as if it’s being lampooned. It is a very funny movie, with a lot of excellent deadpan comedy and literary references that occasionally wander into charmingly dopey territory (case in point: the main characters are called Adam and Eve). While some of this will surely elicit eye-rolls, Jarmusch’s execution is full of winks to the audience that he’s in on the jokes that are his main characters, themselves seemingly stand-ins for that certain class of hipster that, well, watches Jim Jarmusch films.
Detroit plays a major role in the film as it’s setting and the subject of some of film’s prettier shots. It’s an appropriate setting for the film too, beyond having a growing population of Adam and Eve’s real-life counterparts. Something that permeates all of Only Lovers Left Alive is nostalgia—dreams of what once was, what could have been. It’s appropriate, then, that the wistful, ancient subjects of the film spend a lot of time in a city that is known for losing much of its former promise and glory. And while a few scenes get dangerously close to ruin porn (there are scenes at both the Michigan Building and the Packard Plant), Detroit never feels exploited or pitied. Eve even muses that the city will definitely rise again, even as Adam dismisses the thought.
The real strength of the film lies in its two leads. Really, I’m shocked that it took this long for someone to cast Tilda Swinton or Tom Hiddleston as vampires in the first place. Hiddleston’s Adam is wistful, bristly, and obnoxiously melancholy, and Swinton’s Eve is tender, fun-loving, and definitely cooler than you. It may be hard to tell from those descriptions, but both performances are very funny, especially Hiddleston’s subtle lampoon of the tortured artist archetype. The most overtly comic scenes, though, are probably those between Hiddleston and Jeffrey Wright, who share a certain deadpan chemistry that’s wonderful to watch in action.
Lovers is a film that seems to take itself very seriously, but that may be part of the joke. There is definitely a certain comedy in ancient, quasi-immortal beings being concerned with antique guitars and books, lording themselves over the human population even as they admit they themselves are becoming an obsolete race. Adam’s lamenting pessimism and Eve’s knowing optimism are the primary thematic forces at work in the film, and when they’re not being ridiculous their disagreements reveal the underlying melancholy of the film. Being a vampire, does it make more sense to be pessimistic, after seeing how things go wrong over and over again and people never learn, or to be optimistic, after seeing how things always pick up again later?
Only Lovers Left Alive is definitely a strange film, but one that gives its audience a lot to chew on. It’s both slyly funny and poignant, with wonderful, perfectly fitting performances from its leads and a lot of clever banter. Its wandering storyline and constant literary references may grate on some viewers, but come on, hipster vampires in Detroit? How is that not something you want to watch?