Only Lover Left Alive is the kind of vampire movie you’d expect from director Jim Jarmusch: slow, brooding, melancholic, desperate, evocative, melodic, and painfully cool. It’s a movie set in the key of Joy Division. And whereas the genre has been mined of late for high melodramatics that feed teenage emotional angst, Jarmusch uses the same genre tropes to create a kind of existential apocalypse, a precipice from which to glimpse into the abyss of the soul.
The last lovers, fittingly, are named after the first: Adam (Tom Hiddleson) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Both are stuck in a marriage that has lasted hundreds of years. Now Adam is wallowing in his Detroit manse, contemplating suicide as he creates sullen soundtracks on his vintage musical gear. He leaks the soundscapes anonymously through Ian (Anton Yelchin), a skittish and mortal errand boy who is his only contact to the outside world. Eve is on the other side of the world in Tangier, living parallel high romanticism: wandering the labyrinthine arabesque streets at night, devouring volumes of literature, meeting in cafes with her old friend Marlowe (John Hurt) to score her supply of blood (an nagging chore, as these vampires have ceased biting necks and now just rob blood banks). Marlowe is not only a vampire, he’s secretly authored everything from Dr. Faustus to Hamlet over the years. It’s a fetching and intriguing artistic conspiracy, the undead bloodsuckers populating the world with its culture, living through the cycles of generations to gain perspective on the nature of things.
Jaramusch seems keen on constructing a cultural metaphor, and his film’s intensity and sense of desperation feels like the working-through of a transitional epoch, the birth pains of dying culture striving to be reborn. But the fate of humanity – the “zombies,” as the vampires call them – is only a trifle in the context of the two vampire’s endangered sense of self. These great cultural protagonists, vessels and stewards of artistic expression, have run up against an analogous impasse, a sense of futility brought on by a fracturing and dying world. In spite of their age, they are thoroughly modern Millies.
Only Lovers Left Alive is structured like a love story, albeit an odd one. Eve makes the difficult nighttime journey across the world to rescue her desperate man from himself, only to be interrupted by a younger sister whose irresponsibility and impetuousness plays like a millennial caricature. It is also a rich style piece. Blood isn’t sucked, it’s ingested in goblets which leave the vampires in a flattened in a heroin-like state ecstasy. Detroit is a hollowed-out urban waste land, though there is a warmth to its abandon, a kind of infinite space Adam can fill with his expansive ego. Swinton is achingly beautiful, her characteristic age-less androgyny embodying the lived-in void in a way no other actress could. Eternal life affords these characters blasé disaffection that is the epitome of cool.
In one scene, Eve wanders into a café and the movie pauses to listen to Lebanese chanteuse Yasmine Hamdan. Jarmusch waits for his two actresses – the artist and the audience – to have their aesthetic experience. His camera slow pans across the singer, the theater swells with the music. It is as if the film, like its protagonists, had all the time of the world. The scene is indicative of what is most fascinating and affecting about Only Lovers Left Alive, as well as what is most tedious. It is a movie that seems to want to exist like a piece of music – washing us with its mood, its palpable emotional urge. It is a meticulous exercise in tonality. And yet, its ambiguity leaves us wandering on the outside of these characters who, for all of their romantic pretensions, feel all too cold and lifeless.