It’s safe to say that supernatural love stories, particularly those about vampires, are something of a dime-a-dozen commodity; between that and the film’s lead characters being called Adam and Eve, Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps rather likely to elicit more than a few eye-rolls at first glance. However, to look at this film with nothing more than a first glance is to do it a great disservice. Seemingly without a plot, and with a pace that could charitably be called deliberate, those who will go where Only Lovers Left Alive takes them are in for something that really is pretty special.
It’s not really about much of anything in the sense of a story, there are hints of plot developments that don’t really turn into major points, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Without focusing too much on events, or even the vampire myth in particular detail, Jarmusch can instead, rather ironically, shine a light on his leading duo, Adam and Eve, both of whom are played to perfection by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. As a pair of vampires who have been in love for centuries and married each other several times – Eve mentions that their third wedding was in the 1800’s – their chemistry is undeniable, and although both of their performances are understated, they play off of each other incredibly well, and there is never a dull moment when the pair are on screen together. However, their moments apart at the beginning of the film, when Eve is in Tangier and Adam is in Detroit, are just as important. From the beginning, a connection is formed between the two of them; as Jarmusch cuts between the two of them, it seems as if their distance doesn’t matter and what happens to Adam appears to have some kind of impact on Eve, particularly when we see the two of them imbibe with blood for the first time, with the movement of both their heads and the camera, their connection is established and crucial. The reason Eve decides to go to Detroit is out of fear that Adam is slipping into depression and emotionally decaying.
From that we get the first hint at something that the film could be “about”: decay. But not decay in a personal sense, but a wider, almost societal one. The humans, or “zombies” as Adam so pejoratively dubs them, seem to be doing something wrong if the condescension of this central pair is anything to go by. As they drive through Detroit late at night, it looks dystopian, devoid of life, and also strangely beautiful. That’s one of the things that Only Lovers Left Alive does so well, for all of its melancholy musings, there is a very real beauty at its heart. This owes a lot to the wonderful production design and cinematography, which helps to do what any good love story should do: seduce. With its lingering takes and decaying cities and abandoned apartments that somehow manage to be so enticing, the visual style of the film leads the audience in with a friendly and sensual hand as we enter Adam and Eve’s world.
The chemistry shared between Swinton and Hiddleston has already been mentioned, but it, and their performance should both be singled out for praise. It’s understated and minimal and there’s scarcely a raised voice in any of their lines of dialogue, yet between the minimalist script and poignant pauses they create emotion and a genuine sense that the pair have been together for centuries, with Eve mocking Adam for spending time with Shelly and Byron (who Adam claims was a “pompous ass”) in order to cheat her way into a winning a game of chess. They truly carry the film, which is what’s expected of them given that, at its core, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, but it never overflows with saccharine sweet romanticism. As the pair dance together to “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” the film simply lets them, it doesn’t focus visually on some grand romantic movement or image, we are simply allowed to observe the pair together.
On the other end of the spectrum to these two brooding lovers is the mercurial Ava, played to perfection by a scene-stealing Mia Wasikowska. She appears for a few scenes, quite simply, to raise hell, and has a hell of a time doing it, dragging Adam and Eve out to see live music and bringing Ian (the one “zombie” that Adam can stand) back with her for what can only be described as an interesting night. John Hurt does a similar job of dominating the screen as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Marlowe – bringing at once a darkly comic and world-weary sensibility that so perfectly encapsulates what the film is about: love and death.
It’s really not a film for everyone. It meanders, picks at plot strands that disappear as quickly as they came and sometimes, perhaps fittingly given the nature of the characters, has what can feel like a cooler-than-thou sensibility that many may immediately denounce as “hipster.” However, if you’re willing to surrender yourself to the film’s wicked charms for two hours, you’ll be treated to a love story that is beguiling, broody, dryly comic – Swinton’s delivery of one-liners like “Adam, it’s been 87 years” and “well that was visual” really are a treat – and, in its minimalism, emotionally affecting in a way that’s rather surprising. The vampiric nature of the characters seems rather fitting when describing Only Lovers Left Alive, it almost feels like the kind of film that one needs to be “turned” to become fully immersed in. I’ll admit that before Swinton and Hiddleston were sharing scenes I was a little wary of what the film was trying to do, but it slowly won me over, and by the time Wasikowska came kicking and screaming into the frame I was truly hooked. Those who will like this film will probably love it, and even for those who are unsure, I urge you to give it a shot and see if it turns you as it did with me.