Okay, Jim Jarmusch has made a vampire movie, but as you might expect, “Twilight” it’s not. “Only Lovers Left Alive” imposes the cult writer-director’s idiosyncratic style—slow and deadpan—upon the story of some ultra-cool bloodsuckers—one of them Christopher Marlowe—who have survived over the centuries not only by quaffing down the necessary amounts of sanguinary fluid, but also by living unobtrusive though highly artistic half-lives. Devotees of Jarmusch’s work will call the result dreamy and hypnotic. Those of us not taken with his characteristic approach will instead see it as pretty but insufferably dull. From the latter perspective the movie isn’t just like watching paint dry; it’s like watching paint dry, scraping it off, repainting, watching it dry again, scraping it off, repainting, watching it dry, and so on interminably.
The titular lovers are two vampires—Adam (Tim Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton)—who have been devoted to each other literally for centuries. But they’re apart, she in Tangiers, where she’s supplied with uncontaminated blood by none other than Marlowe (John Hurt), and he in Detroit, where he secures his stash from a doctor named Watson (Jeffrey Wright) while purchasing the vintage guitars he collects with the help of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a scraggly rock groupie. When Adam, tiring of existence in a world populated by “zombies” (i.e., mere humans), contemplates suicide, Eve takes a night flight to Michigan to dissuade him.
The two enjoy an idyllic time together, which mostly involves sipping high-quality blood from exquisite long-stemmed sherry glasses (or enjoying it in the form of bloodsicles), engaging in name-dropping about famous old friends whose artistic triumphs they revere, and slow-dancing to old favorites. Occasionally they’ll take a drive around the shattered remnants of the city, bemoaning the transformation of a beautiful old theatre into a parking lot as emblematic of what’s wrong with modernity.
But their peace is shattered when Eve’s wild sister (Mia Wasikowska) shows up from L.A. with all the worst habits of a wanton California lifestyle. Not only does she greedily devour their blood supply, but she trashes Adam’s prize possessions and seduces Ian as a source of further nourishment. Her antics make it impossible for Adam and Eve to remain in Detroit, but when they decamp to Tangiers, they find their old buddy Marlowe no longer able to provide the sustenance they need and are forced to look elsewhere if they are to survive.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” is a thinly-disguised parable of addiction presented with a smug certitude of the hipness of those who made it and those who will identify with its ethos. The superiority of the vampires over the humans they deride as “zombies” is expressed through condescending asides that range from the blindingly obvious (as when Marlowe complains about that blockhead Shakespeare getting credit for plays that he had actually written) to the more abstruse (Eve reminds Adam of a string quintet he composed for Schubert, to which he replies that he contributed only the slow movement—which connoisseurs will know is regarded as the sublime essence of the piece). This sort of cutesiness fills the movie, making it seem calculated to treat those who don’t “get” it with condescension.
Of course Jarmusch and his team, led by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, manage some visually striking compositions, which Affonso Goncalves’ leisurely editing gives a languid beauty. And the director’s penchant for showcasing diverse musical tracks, often at the expense of forward momentum, is in evidence as well. All of these factors give the film a funereal feel, despite the evocative appearance.
Swinton and Hiddleston are entirely in synch with the mood their director is determined to achieve, and though there’s more than a hint of affectation in their performances, they couldn’t fit Jarmusch’s conception any better. Yelchin’s ingratiating presence is a nice exception to the generally phlegmatic mood, but Wasikowska is grating—the fault of her character more than her performance. And the ever-dependable Hurt lends a touch of world-weary class to the proceedings as the grizzled Marlowe.
In the end, though, the picture—which happily sidestepping the clichés of the vampire genre—is basically another offering for Jarmusch cultists to hungrily devour rather than a film designed to attract others to his orbit. And that’s probably the way the director—who seems to have a lot of Adam in him—likes it.