Movies about immortality tend to see more curse than blessing in the prospect of an endless existence. It would be so lonely, these films insist, to endure while those around you wither away, the eons grinding by without closure or meaning. There would, of course, be certain benefits to having no expiration date. With Only Lovers Left Alive, a stylishly droll twist on vampire lore, writer-director Jim Jarmusch posits eternal life as a kind of indefinite bohemian holiday—a supernatural opportunity to bone up (and stay current) on the essentials. Cast for their ethereal swagger, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, ageless undead spouses. He’s a cult musician laying low in Detroit, his apartment a museum of rare instruments acquired by an accommodating “rock ’n’ roll kid” (Anton Yelchin). She’s a world traveler living in Tangiers, her long evenings spent in the company of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt)—yes, that Christopher Marlowe. When they feast, the lovebirds do so from blood-bank withdrawals instead of jugulars, each sip sending them into a narcotized reverie. Their real appetite, however, is for culture. Nothing passes the centuries better than a good read or a great tune.
Adam and Eve are not, in other words, your average big-screen bloodsuckers, nor is Only Lovers Left Alive much like the typical vampire flick. Jarmusch, the aging ambassador of cool who made Dead Man and The Limits Of Control, is known for draining genre scenarios of action and incident. But he’s crafted something truly special this time out: a funny, deeply romantic hangout movie that treats art not just as a reason to live, but also as a rejuvenating force in a relationship. (For once, Jarmusch’s namedropping and promotion of his own good taste feels wholly relevant.) The plot, or what passes for it, finds Eve traveling to the Motor City to check up on Adam, whose melodramatic discontent has shaded a little too close to suicidal for her tastes. Once together, the longtime lovers fall back into old habits, their affectionate reunion consummated through vinyl listening parties, chatty chess matches, and gorgeous, nighttime tours of a ghost-town Detroit. Eventually, a third party arrives to disrupt the couple’s lazy bliss, and Only Lovers briefly threatens to turn into an actual genre movie. Blessedly, the change doesn’t take. This is a mood piece at heart.
In many respects, Adam and Eve are nocturnal cousins to the angels from Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire: They’re secret observers of history, living records of the past with little control over the future. But Jarmusch has no interest in the kind of guilt and grief Wenders wove through his movie; Only Lovers comes in a hipper, sexier shade of melancholy. Laying eyes on the film’s piles upon piles of valuable junk—old recording equipment, leather-bound novels, cosmetic clutter—is a bit like rummaging through the director’s attic. But that just lends credence to the feeling that he’s made one of his most personal movies. There’s something very optimistic, maybe even profound about the love story: After months—perhaps years—apart, Adam and Eve drift effortlessly back into each other’s lives; they may not be able to change the world they’ve been observing for centuries, but their relationship is resilient enough to survive the seismic changes it’s undergone. What’s truly hopeful, however, is the slightly unfashionable suggestion that great art is still being made, even in these supposed dark ages. The erudite vampire lovers don’t just love the music of 17th-century composer William Lawes, but also that of modern guitar wizard Jack White, whose childhood home makes a cameo. Would Adam and Eve love their own movie, this seductive salute to creativity and its replenishing effect?