In my memory, most of Jim Jarmusch’s movies seem to take place in worlds of half-lit menace, shadows concealing foes or fears, the glare of neon and too-bright fluorescent bulbs. This time, the writer-director has gone all the way: “Only Lovers Left Alive” unfurls entirely at night, because the main characters are vampires.
Everyone who makes a vampire film ought to add something to the mythology, and Jarmusch does. His immortal couple, Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton), have untold wealth, because they invested money at compound interest centuries ago.
So they buy pure blood illegally, he from a doctor in Detroit and she from one in Tangier on the north coast of Africa. (Jarmusch doesn’t explain why the couple doesn’t live together, though they love each other.) They sip the red fluid fastidiously from goblets and collapse into a drugged bliss, as if it were hashish.
This existence could go on peacefully (for eternity, one assumes), until Eve visits Adam in Detroit. Her trashy younger sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska), pops by unannounced from Los Angeles. Eva collects blood the old-fashioned way – by sucking it out of the necks of unsuspecting men – and interrupts their idyll forever.
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In Jarmusch’s world, vampires can sicken and die by taking on infected blood; as usual, the taking of other people’s fluid, however nonviolently, is a metaphor for sex. Adam also flirts with suicide, loading a .38 with a wooden bullet that could pierce his heart.
Wealth and indestructibility don’t bring bliss, after all, especially when you see the world decaying around you. Jarmusch makes multiple references to the harm we’re doing each other and the planet, and Adam’s depression comes from a disgust Eve doesn’t seem to feel.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), Eva’s blood supplier in Tangier, once enjoyed his vicarious attention. His real-life death in 1593 was faked, we learn, and he went on to write all the plays attributed to Shakespeare. But after 400 years, the gloss has worn off even the authorship of “Hamlet,” and the blasé Marlowe is now just a nodding blood addict.
Like most horror movies, “Lovers” becomes a reflection of modern society. These languid aesthetes refer to people with normal lifespans as “zombies;” Adam and Eve are dispassionate billionaires, insulated by money, power and a sense of superiority against the rest of the world. Their favorite adjective is “beautiful,” applied to rare objects of art but never to anything alive.
We sympathize with them more than the tawdry, destructive Eva, but the most appealing character is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a mortal musician who helps find curios for Adam. He’s motivated as much by friendship and respect as cash, because he responds to the hypnotic music Adam writes.
Of course, like all the other “zombies,” his life will be over in a relative eye-blink compared to Adam’s. Maybe Jarmusch wants us to understand that life, however brief, has meaning only if we connect with others.