Sometimes two actors have such great chemistry that it almost doesn't matter what kind of story has been wrapped around them. In Only Lovers Left Alive, stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are utterly captivating as bohemian vampires who live like Renaissance artists in a world of rock stars.
Written and directed by cult filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Broken Flowers), the movie centers on a brief episode in the very long lives of Adam and Eve, two vampires who pursue their artistic obsessions while trying to find blood that hasn't been tainted by drugs or disease (which turns out to be pretty hard in 2014). Adam writes moody rock for for vintage electric guitars in a decaying Detroit house, surrounded by unlit wilderness and the howling of wild dogs. Eve lives in an apartment crowded with old books in Tangiers, hobnobbing with her fellow literary vampire pal Christopher Marlow, who secretly wrote all of Shakespeare's plays.
Adam is a kind of Romantic, who once hung out with Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (whom Eve refers to pointedly as "Mary Wollstonecraft," part of her maiden name, a fun touch for lit nerds). To remain anonymous, he's been giving his music to other composers for centuries, and has perhaps authored some some fairly well-known compositions attributed to other people. But now he'd gotten dejected and emo. He wanders around in 200-year-old smoking jackets, morbidly contemplating a gun loaded with a wooden bullet in between visits from a young rocker who buys vintage guitars for him.
There are a lot of long, slow sequences where the camera fetishistically caresses Adam's gorgeous old guitars and amp technology, or Eve's piles of 300-year-old books. It's all set to the jangly, meditative rock that Jarmusch layers into nearly all his films. Maybe this sounds indulgent, but these scenes are just so beautiful — often full of amusing visual quirks — that I never found myself annoyed by them. It probably helps that Hiddleston and Swinton are both lovely to behold, and deliver their lines with languid humor.
Though physically apart, Adam and Eve stay in touch all the time — when she Facetimes him, she knows immediately that he's entered a depressive phase and needs help. Using a seemingly endless reserve of cash that's never explained, she jumps on the redeye to Detroit and back into her longtime lover's arms. As Adam gives Eve a tour of the abandoned factories and theaters in his beloved, dying city, Eve tries to coax him out of his despondence.
They go to clubs and take walks, looking like rock stars who have somehow never aged beyond their late-1970s heroin days. At the same time, we know they're not just shallow Patti Smith wannabes — they've lived through some of the greatest cultural transformations in history, always at the edges of underground art scenes, contributing what they can to music and art without giving away the secret of how they live. And there are a few great moments when we see the alienness of their ancient perspective. At one point, Adam starts whining about how Detroit is dying, but Eve (the older one) is unconvinced. "There's water here," she comments mildly. "When the southern cities are burning, this city will bloom again."
A big part of the fantasy in Only Lovers Left Alive is that Adam and Eve are sort of subculture superheroes, with impeccable subterranean taste, drawn to brilliant indie creations the way more typical vampires are drawn to blood.
But of course they feed on human blood too. And when various setbacks — including Eve's snotty sister — interfere with their supply of clean, hospital-grade O negative, Adam and Eve have to figure out what they'll do next. This conundrum is perhaps the only thing that could pass for "action" in this film, which is ultimately a sweet, funny character study of a love affair between two people who share a passion for creative weirdness. It's incredibly refreshing to watch a relationship drama where the relationship itself isn't the source of drama. The bond between Adam and Eve is never questioned, and we know they can depend on each other as they cope with whatever madness the world hurls at them.
Despite the magnetism of these characters, there are definitely moments of unevenness. Sometimes Jarmusch's adulation of Adam verges on Mary Sue-dom. Adam is such a brilliant musician that even the few songs he's released anonymously have earned him what he calls "rocker zombie" fans. He's also a scientific genius who has built a generator that runs on molecular collisions in the atmosphere. And when he sees an amazing singer in a nightclub in Tangiers, he comments, "I hope she doesn't become famous — she's too good for that." Um, really, emo hipster vampire boy? You are just too cool.
Plus there's something bizarre about a movie that's set mostly in Detroit, yet contains pretty much nothing but white people. Given some of Jarmusch's previous work, you'd think he would know better.
So the film has some limitations. But they won't prevent you from enjoying the hell out of this delicious story about two charismatic outsiders who were lucky enough to find each other — and to find comfort in the best parts of humanity, too. Hiddleston and Swinton manage to show us what grown-up romance looks like, between two perfectly autonomous people who are still crazy about each other after all those hundreds of years.