Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which screens this week at the New York Film Festival) opens with a needle drop, the pop and crackle of an old record, and the image of a moody rock 45 whose spinning is matched by overhead shots of our protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). They are vampires, but not your typical movie vampires; they spend most of their time in their rooms, devouring books and music and bottled blood. Jarmusch inserts few of the tropes of vampire fiction — there is, for example, a serious shortage of neck-sucking (dismissed by Eve as “so fucking 15th century”). Somewhere around the lovely scene of Tilda Swinton dancing, freely and wholeheartedly, to the old soul record, Jarmusch’s M.O. becomes clear: Only Lovers Left Alive is a hanging-out move, just with vampires.
As the story begins, Eve is in Tangiers and Adam is in the recognizably vacant current incarnation of Detroit, though their world is one freely populated by not only vampires but zombies. Eve travels to Detroit to see Adam, who keeps himself busy as an underground musician, and we eventually discover that they have been married since 1868. They make love. They talk. Eventually, Eve’s sister (played by Mia Wasikowska, in buzzy little spark plug mode) shows up, and causes some trouble. They end up back in Tangiers.
That’s pretty much the plot. As you may have guessed, it is not a hard-target narrative. It is, as Jarmusch explained following Thursday’s press screening, “a little character study,” and that’s what not only drew Swinton to it initially, be kept her on through years of false starts and rewrites. “We all just threw ourselves off the precipice, as usual,” she laughed, adding that she liked the idea of a film about “a man and a woman who obviously really fancied each other still, who really, really loved talking to each other still. So we kind off cut that off by the yard.”
What’s striking, and unexpected, and sort of wonderful about the movie is how well that idea fits into the vampire mythos. “Obviously, it’s not a horror movie, as most vampire movies are,” Jarmusch explained. “I think it’s just the overview that it allowed, because they’ve been alive so long, to show a love story that spans that amount of time… To be able to see their perception of history over long period of times, was really interactive to me. And their own love story, to span that amount of time, was what drew me to it.”
While that approach might turn off the True Blood set, it allows the writer/director enormous opportunities to make deadpan comedy of immortality, in lines like Eve’s plea for her husband to be patient with her sister: “Adam, it’s been 87 years.” He seems to have just as much fun sifting in the idea of celebrity, peppering the picture with funny literary references, like casting John Hurt as a 500-plus-year-old Christopher Marlowe (who dismisses Shakespeare as an “illiterate zombie philistine”) or having Eve ask her husband, “What was Mary Wollstonecraft like?”
The film isn’t entirely uninterested in the particulars of vampiredom; it spends plenty of time on their rituals of consumption and the logistics of attaining the best blood, “the good stuff.” (There are also some well-placed hints at the addiction subtext that drew previous indie filmmakers like Abel Ferrara and Michael Almereyda to the genre.) And there’s even some augmentation of what Jarmusch calls the “mythology of vampire films, which is a cumulative thing,” with elements like fangs, holy water, and threshold-crossing added in over time. Their contribution? “We added in these leather gloves that they wear when they’re outside of their habitat. Why? Cause we had something that was ours that we invented. And we thought it looked really cool. Very important criteria.”
The pacing is, admittedly, awfully self-indulgent in stretches, and the filmmaker’s relative lack of interest in tightly crafted narrative may put off even arthouse audiences. But there’s much to admire here (every performer in it both surprises and engages), and it is a fun movie to just luxuriate in — particularly when compared to Jarmusch’s last effort, the crushingly monotonous The Limits of Control. But as he admits, there is no formula to this kind of filmmaking: “I feel like I have to listen to the film and let it tell me what it wants. And sometimes it mumbles.”
Only Lovers Left Alive screens this week at the New York Film Festival. It is slated for theatrical release next spring.