Vampires have saturated the media for years now, glittering in sunlight on the big screen or traipsing about bayous and palatial manors on televisions. The emphasis on youthful beauty and the privileges of immortality are the crux of these portrayals, and this will grab attention as long as humans wish they could live and be beautiful longer than time allows. A more existential approach to the vampire legend is rarer, and can be powerful even in the simplest and oldest sort of story: a love story.
Only Lovers Left Alive is just such a love story, and indeed references one of the oldest stories by naming its lovers Adam and Eve. Immortality here is not a merely egoistic thing; it offers an unmatched approach to the notion of sustaining passion and devotion over time—all time. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a depressive vampire whose vast knowledge of song and instrumentation makes him a preeminent musician. He remains reclusive out of necessity in Detroit, where his underground sound is sought by the most “vampiric” of hipsters, who crave access to his music but can barely understand it. The lyrical genius of Adam finds its complement in the boundlessly intelligent Eve (Tilda Swinton), a nature lover whose home in Tangiers is filled with a dense library.
The two exquisite beings are decadent, moody and sultry—all the things one wants vampires to be—but more importantly they are a balance of forces, ageless counterparts who face the passing of time and the modern world with a wisdom and weariness that mere mortals cannot fathom. The balance is upset by the unexpected appearance of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who embraces the narcissism and nihilism of the modern age. Visiting from Los Angeles, Ava becomes an avatar of the seductive and destructive aspects of the new world that Adam and Eve resist, insulated by their art and each other’s love. It’s more than a foreboding love triangle; it’s an existential crisis for the eternal.
Director Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog, Dead Man) crafts a tight film in two locations (Detroit and Morocco) that his camera fills with a neutral and empty quality for his complex characters to fill, where they can confront their own emptiness without each other. Jarmusch avoids the usual tawdry flashbacks and origin stories, instead focusing on the present and allowing Adam and Eve to struggle and reminisce about the past, the arts and music they have experienced over centuries and the human struggle that they can only witness. They are still predators, still forced to kill—and there will be blood—but the carnage is not sensational. It is even darkly humorous at times. Like the settings, the plot is character-driven, slowly unpacking the complexities of the characters, the baffling nature of existence (mortal and immortal) in a changeable and hostile world, the sadness and isolation that follows, but most importantly the promise of joy in creativity and curiosity that can be shared with one beloved—for a day or forever.
Only Lovers Left Alive is now showing at the Landmark Guild Theatre.