Sometimes there’s a crazy alchemy that takes two flavors you don’t particularly like and converts them into one solid burst of delicious. Neither “Jim Jarmusch film” nor “vampire tale” are near the top of my list of must-see movies, but darn if this Jim Jarmusch vampire flick isn’t smart and sexy, a low-key look at the lives of the undead that’s both witty and moving.
It helps immensely, no doubt, to have performers as radiant and watchable as Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in the leads, but it’s Jarmusch’s direction — both detached and compassionate — and his smart screenplay that make “Only Lovers Left Alive” such a treat for mature audiences, even those who were ready to drive a collective stake through any and all post-“Twilight” tales from the crypt.
Part of the appeal of the vampiric lifestyle, particularly as portrayed in “The Lost Boys,” is the idea of being young and gorgeous forever. Jarmusch, in his typically laconic way, flips the notion around and asks, regarding immortality, what do you do with all that time on your hands?
For Adam (Hiddleston), the centuries allow him the opportunity to perfect his music, whether it’s symphonies for Schumann or, in his current Detroit digs, underground droning recorded on an impressive set-up of analog equipment. His wife Eve (Swinton) hangs out in Tangiers with legendary playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt); he hooks her up with “the good stuff,” blood-wise, so she can limit her devouring to her vast library of world literature.
Adam’s not one for the hunt either, instead bribing a doctor (Jeffrey Wright) at a local hospital to keep him stocked up. (In Jarmusch’s universe, blood isn’t merely sustenance for vampires but also a euphoric substance.) Feeling blue, Adam convinces Eve to fly over for a visit.
All seems well in the Motor City, until Eve’s troublemaking younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up with an appetite for trouble in general and Adam’s mortal aide-de-camp Ian (Anton Yelchin) in particular. Ava’s boisterous mischief can only cause headaches for Eve and Adam, who have had centuries to develop their louche sensibilities.
It’s that seen-it-all attitude that constitutes a good portion of the humor in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” since these immortals have been there and done that, for centuries now. We might expect people in other Jarmusch movies to name-drop Einstein and Tesla, but this is that rare time when his characters have a first-hand acquaintance of these legends.
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How Swinton has managed not to play a couture-swaddled vampire before now is unexplainable, but she sinks fangs, bicuspids and molars into the role; her Eve is past the point of surprise, but she’s still never jaded, and Swinton perfectly embodies a woman who’s worldly without being world-weary.
Hiddleston’s obsessed composer flirts with satire — he’s all about the music, man — but his love of obscure R&B singles and rare electric guitars maintains a sense of purity; as a mortal, Adam might seem insufferable, but as someone who vividly remembers the 19th century, his profound attachment to the 20th comes off as charming and aesthetically pure.
Wasikowska clearly relishes the opportunity to play a vixen, and she injects the film with a naughty energy when it needs it. And while their roles are relatively small, Yelchin, Wright and especially Hurt pour plenty of soul into their characters.
Given the requirement of shooting at night, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“I Am Love,” “Swimming Pool”) finds the shades in the blackness, making an inky Detroit midnight look quite different than the pre-dawn hours in Tangiers. The night embraces the characters and their actions, but it never shrouds them.
Neither, for that matter, does Jarmusch. Eve and Adam might be the walking dead, but they’ve got more of a pulse than many of their contemporary big-screen peers.