I complained recently that Oculus, a horror movie about a supernatural mirror, didn’t have a point. I suppose I could raise the same criticism with Only Lovers Left Alive, the new flick from writer-director Jim Jarmusch about a vampire couple whose attachment has endured centuries.
Yet the effect of that lack is utterly different. Oculus was manipulative and nihilistic. Only Lovers Left Alive has no point because it doesn’t need one, given how gloriously and utterly in love the film is with the darkly beautiful little world it has created. The plot does feature something of a moral crisis at its climax, but the tension simply serves to remind us of the value of the microcosm these two people (individuals? entities?) have created.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been married since sometime in the 1800s. Their relationship has settled into a comfortable cycle of separation and reconnection – I imagine, after a few centuries, a relationship would need that – and we drop in on Adam living in an old townhouse on the outskirts of Detroit. He’s apparently earned himself quite a fortune and fan-base as a musician, but he lives reclusively, his only connection to the outside world a young fan (Anton Yelchin) who brings him supplies and equipment.
Adam’s been around a few hundred years at this point, and the relentless self-destructiveness and world-destructiveness of human beings (whom he refers to as “zombies”) is beginning to weigh on his already-depressive personality. So when Eve calls him up (she’s been hanging out in Tangiers with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (Jon Hurt) – yes, that Christopher Marlowe), she quickly flies back to be with him. After a brief idle, their time together is interrupted by Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s vampiric, compulsive, and irresponsible little sister. And from there things get a touch complicated.
The vampirism itself is a strikingly subtle force in the film. It’s primarily aesthetic: both Adam and Eve are pale, angular, and lanky. The yin-and-yang effect – Adam with his large shock of stringy black hair and clothes of comparatively dark tones, and Eve sporting dreadlocked tresses and outfits of white and cream in shades of varying severity – is certainly no accident on Jarmusch’s part. Adam’s home is a somewhat scruffy and gothic take on your standard 70s counter-cultural den; all old guitars, tube amps, sound boards, throw rugs, drapery, thickly padded furniture, and various vintage knick knacks. The visual design of the entire film is shot through with that kind of rigor.
The vampirism quietly shapes the plot as well. Adam and Eve long ago decided that killing humans is, if not exactly immoral, at least horribly uncouth. So key parts of the narrative involve the alternative routines they’ve set up to acquire blood supplies. To that end, the meetings Adam has with a hospital doctor (Jeffrey Wright) are hilarious tableaus of clandestine awkwardness.
But their need for blood is also a quiet reminder of the thin and delicate thread by which Adam and Eve’s existence actually hangs. The specters of loss and decay haunt the film, especially in the economic devastation of Adam’s Detroit. But there’s also Eve’s gentle and far-reaching perspective, focused on the basic and primordial forces of life, and earned over her inhumanly long existence. Sooner or later, she observes, Detroit will come back. It’s near water.
Hiddleston and Swinton’s performances are exactly what the film requires. For all his ironic detachment and sardonic one-liners, Adam’s romantic gestures to Eve in his doorway upon her arrival show a remarkable vulnerability and earnestness. And the way she can pick exactly the right song to play to pull him out of his occasional funks is a testament to the mutual understanding they’ve built. When, early in the film, Eve realizes how deep Adam’s depression goes and momentarily fears for his safety, her reaction is sharp, simple, and deeply moving.
The soundtrack for Only Lovers Left Alive is an eclectic mix of exactly the type of songs you’d expect a surly, old school rock and roller like Adam to pick. Jarmusch and his band also also supply several original tracks, including some wonderfully hypnotic numbers meant to be of Adam’s creation. I suspect that, with Adam, Jarmusch is engaged in more than a bit of self-recreation and gentle self-mockery.
The overall effect is of a small, secluded, darkly romantic little universe, ordered according to its own unique rhythms and aesthetics. Adam and Eve have created a tight bulwark against the ravages of the world, beautifully and achingly fragile, sitting atop boundless resources of reciprocal trust, affection, and knowledge. Jarmusch clearly wants nothing more than to bask in that world, and we the audience cannot help but share his infatuation. For, after all, isn’t such a thing what we all hope for from love?