If you go into this film expecting vampire action and action sequences, you’re bound to be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a quiet film that uses vampires to look at the human condition, you might enjoy yourself. Some viewers will no doubt be put off by its lack of plot, indulgent wordless sequences, and literary pretensions, but it has enough fun and feeling that it isn’t alienating or empty.
Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t have much in the way of narrative, simply giving a snapshot of the lives of vampire lovers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Adam, a recluse living in Detroit, is composing funeral music and contemplating suicide, his romantic nature unable to deal with the monotonous and destructive lives of humans around him. Eve can sense her husband’s distress from Tangiers (where she’s been living near long-time friend and vampire, Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt), and flies to Detroit to stay with him. They discuss love, life, and music, and are briefly interrupted by Eve’s troublesome sister, Ava (a delightful Mia Wasikowska). Writer and director Jim Jarmusch brings enough vampire mythology into the story to give the characters unique conflict (like their need to find “uncorrupted” human blood) and to play with horror tropes for humor. The closest the film comes to the Bela Lugosi school of vampires is an inspired Gothic font choice in the credits.
Tilda Swinton plays Eve with calm detachment, tempered when necessary by flashes of ardor. Her coolness (reflected perfectly by her pale hair and wardrobe) is the counterpart to Adam’s self-destructive passion. Hiddleston affects a raspy growl that’s even stagier than his voice as Loki in the Marvel films, one of the ways the film acknowledges that his attitude is a bit ridiculous. The film could easily have been bogged down by his incessant moping, but it makes jokes out of the way he conforms to vampire stereotypes – there are some hysterical scenes in a hospital he visits to obtain fresh blood. Still, he isn’t entirely unsympathetic, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the love story, especially since they have so much chemistry; Swinton and Hiddleston look like they were made to go together.
As the protagonists’ names make obvious, the film isn’t concerned with subtlety in some ways, but that’s not exactly criticism. Jarmusch uses stark blacks and whites to show the contrast between the lovers, but also how they fit perfectly together. Ava’s wardrobe, with colors and patterns, can’t exist in Eve’s world of pale colors or Adam’s in shades of black. This motif extends even into the setting, and helps support the film’s lavish imagery, alongside a sense of clutter and disarray that would make Wes Anderson weep. Alongside the visuals, the odd dialogue can bring the film into the realm of the surreal; Eve especially (Swinton at her most otherworldly) talks to mushrooms and tells Adam about a planet-sized diamond in space that gives off “the sound of a giant gong.” The weirdness is tempered by more grounded humor, often relying on literary references (which may also serve to make the whole thing more pretentious, depending on your mood).
One could argue that this film thinks it’s smarter than it is, at one point using Einsteinian particle theory as a metaphor for the central relationship, but it’s a chilled-out, immersive experience all the same. Not much happens, and it’s hard to say how much further ahead the characters are at the end compared to the beginning, yet there’s a sense that something happened. Characters who have lived as long as these two have can’t do much more than continue to exist. We don’t know how much longer they’ll last in a world where human blood is becoming increasingly undrinkable, but at least they’ll have each other until the end.