Only Lovers Left Alive has some flourishes familiar to viewers of other films by writer-director Jim Jarmusch. The former Cuyahoga Falls resident is known for a deliberately paced approach to storytelling that at times threatens to seem plotless, and that is evident in the new film.
But Only Lovers is more accessible than some of Jarmusch’s work because of its two main characters, married vampires Eve and Adam, and especially because of the way they are performed by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. This is at once a vampire movie for people who don’t like vampire movies and a Jarmusch movie for people who have not warmed to his previous work. It is an often funny portrait of what it means to have lived for hundreds of years, adapting to the world around you while absorbing centuries of pop culture. If you missed it at the Cleveland International Film Festival, find it now.
As the film begins, Adam and Eve are still connected emotionally but living apart, Adam is on the outskirts of Detroit; he has been famous as a musician but now hides from his fans, using a contact (Anton Yelchin) to collect classic guitars and other equipment for the gloom-laden recordings Adam makes for himself. Eve, who seems to be the older of the two, is in Tangiers, comfortably absorbed in her books and her friendship with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the 16th-century writer who in Jarmusch’s telling is also a vampire.
Also important to Eve is that Marlowe is her blood source. Neither Adam nor Eve feeds in the traditional vampire way because of the potential for diseased blood. Marlowe has a French doctor who provides him with fresh, clean blood, which he shares with Eve. Adam gets his by bribing a doctor (Jeffrey Wright) at a local hospital. Money is not an issue for either, but their long lives may be. For whatever reason, there are places they can no longer appear. (That and their nocturnal natures make travel arrangements difficult.) Adam especially feels the weight of his years. And both are having dreams about Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a sign that she is about to re-enter their lives, setting the other characters in motion and abruptly driving the movie toward its end.
But before that, we have only the lives of Adam and Eve, apart and later together, surviving even as the world around them is in decay. That’s evident not only in their blood-getting but in the nocturnal drives Adam takes through the wreckage of Detroit, past buildings whose glories are long gone; in the way he clings to older sounds and technologies, and in Eve’s ties to Marlowe even as her friend’s body is wearing out.
Beyond those moments, too, are the performances, Hiddleston, known mainly as Loki in the Thor and Avengers movies, easily conveys the sorrow in Adam, while Swinton’s Eve has found joy, and so is determined to survive to experience more. There’s a scene where Eve begins to dance, her spirit loose, and Adam joins her, and you see how very connected they are, how intense their love is underneath their cool surfaces.
All this plays out in a context that embraces plenty of vampire conventions — the blood, the night life, fangs and film credits whose lettering echoes films like 1958’s The Horror of Dracula. Yet Jarmusch wants us to consider what a 21st-century vampire would be in a far more sophisticated way than something like Twilight allows. Even in those slow, Jarmusch-y spots, the characters and acting carry you through.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.