In some back alley in a North African city, or in the outskirts of Detroit, there live small communities of odd, pale-looking loners. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) looks like an aging rock star, living in some ornate room in Detroit like a hermit, while his lackey Ian (Anton Yelchin) buys him expensive guitars for him to fiddle on. Eve (Tilda Swinton, looking like a proper dusty mummy) meets at night with the age-old Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) in a Moroccan courtyard to exchange pleasantries and pick up a bag of blood. They are vampires.
The first half hour of the film is like the first movement of an atmospheric symphony, laying bare all these secrets as if we are observing the movements of an elusive animal. It’s best to regard them that way. Their dens look amazing; holes in our architecture where they have lived for hundreds of years. Eve’s place holds thousands of books; Adam’s is the lair of a music connoisseur, full of equipment. They are cultured creatures of the night. Each shot looks carefully curated, composed visually with good attention to colors, light and shadow.
The casting is absolutely perfect. Tilda Swinton has this ageless, unusual look to her and shows stability and intelligence. Hiddleston is perfect to portray a tortured soul, moody and artistic, suffering under the burden of centuries of human stupidity. They look at the world from the perspective of ancient history, seeing how everything we humans do is transient. They talk about the personal quirks of long-dead historical figures while eating blood ice-cream. When Eva’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears, trouble is on the horizon. After all, it must be tiring to have a teenage sister for all eternity.
Director Jim Jarmush puts it on slightly too heavy. Adam and Eve talk about all the ancient musicians and scientists a bit too often, and their love for 20th century music is a bit too exaggerated. The film starts out as a proper artwork, but gets in danger of becoming corny. It does get hard after a while to not see Adam and Eve as walking around in some self-absorbed world of teenage escapism. How are they any different from any young adult who paints their hair and hangs around in a bar at night, looking down at regular people out of some sort of defensive impulse?
What would it really be like to live for centuries and to hold the same lover for all that time? What would love become, and life for that matter? Jarmush’s interpretation holds as much water as any other, I suppose, but does feel superficial. Eve has found a stability in eternal life, but Adam still struggles to find meaning. Deeper than that question Jarmush does not dare to dive. It is mainly a rock movie, rather slow, more concerned with mood than anything else. The ponderous nature of the film rather fits the aimlessness of Adam’s eternal life.
Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the more tasteful vampire movies out there. It takes the alchemy between vampirism and romance and give it a sensitive, artistic twist. The movie is a feast for the eyes and for the ears, but don’t expect a stirring tale. If, however, you feel drawn towards the dark, melancholic dimension of the night and eternity, then this film may inspire you with the mood it tries to point down.