A long and distant race of former humans are the protagonists in Jim Jarmusch’s take (as writer and director) on vampires in the modern world, trying to regain lost time together. Only Lovers Left Alive is the tale of two such star crossed (not sun drenched) lovers, embracing once more after a separation across time and continents.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician whose work is much sought after but who has not been specifically in the public eye for a while. Adam lives in a run-down area of Detroit and has become quite reclusive, acquiring the various items he desires from zombie (i.e. normal human) Ian (Anton Yelchin). These ephemeral artefacts include vintage guitars – electric or acoustic – and a single 38mm bullet carved from hard wood. Blood, necessary for his survival as a vampire, is obtained from his hospital supplier Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), although Adam’s disguise as a physician which, together with his ancient stethoscope, does not convince the laboratory doctor of his credentials, although the Watson is quite happy to receive payment for the bottles of blood procured. Although blood is necessary to ensure his existence, Adam has one real need: his life-long love Eve (Tilda Swinton). In a fit of depression he loads the wooden bullet into a gun but fails to use it when he finally speaks to Eve via a videolink. Eve is, however, in Tangier but will return to be with Adam, leaving the country and old friend, the playwright Marlowe (John Hurt), to journey to America and reunite with Adam. The lovers meet once more and endure a chaotic visit from Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) but can their love really survive this modern age?
In many respects movie genres rely on two basic principles to succeed, that is, a narrative which guarantees familiarity with the subject matter but one that also introduces enough difference to ensure that the material remains fresh and new. Vampire films have been around for nigh-on a century and have adapted over the decades to suit audiences tastes. Developing an alternative way of approaching a genre rife with conventions (drinking blood, aversion to daylight etc) which need to be confirmed or dispelled, and then to create something special and absorbing needs the talents of a director such as Jarmusch. His laid back style and distinct brand of cool takes the genre in another – and altogether pleasing – direction and makes it uniquely his own. Jarmusch’s style made famous in such films as the cult-cool multiple linked storytelling of Night on Earth (1991), Mystery Train (1989) and Down by Law(1986) as well as alternative takes on genre in films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) ensures that Only Lovers Left Alive remains a distinctly unconventional and deeply gratifying viewing experience.
Vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, at least those as old as Adam and Eve, adapt to the age in which they live, their lives progressing with the times in a way that demonstrates how their intellectual prowess has shaped and influenced culture throughout history. They retain their affinities with the past; Adam has always enjoyed music and his works have been popular across the ages. This also links with another distinctive element of Jarmusch’s works – a notable soundtrack which is as eclectic in its style and choice of instruments as the music Adam has composed over the centuries.
Like the other films written and directed by Jarmusch Only Lovers Left Alive is both hip and classy, an intelligent take on the genre with multiple references to film and literature (the pseudonyms the vampires use provide plenty of knowing chuckles). With a strong cast and terrific performances this is one to savour.