At first blush, the premise isn’t one that inspires confidence: a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie. Has it come to this? Has the deadpan downtown auteur behind such films as Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and Broken Flowers finally caved to the commercial imperatives of the Hollywood marketplace and entered the Twilight zone? You can relax. The undead couple in Only Lovers Left Alive are a decidedly Jarmuschian strain of bloodsucker. They wear groovy sunglasses, possess the pallid, opalescent complexion of his-and-her heroin-chic models, and collect vintage guitars and vinyl: a cool-cat set of character traits that would seem tailor-made for Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, two actors who can convey a jaded sense of they-walk-at-night debauchery and decadence in their sleep. They are rock & roll vampires, waxing philosophical while on the hunt for a tasty type-O transfusion.
Their names are Adam and Eve. And while these lovers haven’t been wandering the earth since as far back as the Garden of Eden, they’ve been around long enough to name-drop acquaintances including Byron, Shelley, and Christopher Marlowe (who, it turns out, is a fellow vampire, played with mischievous glee by a grizzled John Hurt). They are soul mates who have been married for centuries but live apart — she in an opium-den crash pad in Tangier, he in a ramshackle Victorian house on the outskirts of Detroit. They periodically check in with each other via FaceTime, cooing sweet nothings between shots of high-test plasma sipped from sherry glasses. Lately, though, the interminable decades of cursed immortality seem to be weighing on Adam, and he’s toying with the idea of suicide. He’s even managed to get his hands on a wooden bullet for the task. So Eve heads to the Motor City to soothe his tormented soul, introducing him to the dark delicacy of blood Popsicles and getting him to dance to old R&B chestnuts like Charlie Feathers’ ”Can’t Hardly Stand It.”
During wonderful moments like these — and another where the couple take Eve’s impulsive younger sister (Mia Wasikowska) to an underground nightclub — Adam and Eve truly do seem like the only lovers left alive, and the film casts an eerily hypnotic spell. The director, shooting on digital for the first time (with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux), turns the desolate, burned-out Detroit into a gorgeous nocturnal ghost town not unlike the Memphis of his 1989 gem Mystery Train. And yet, as much as I dialed in to the film’s visual flair and louche vibe, it never quite gets past being an exercise in style over substance. Vampire films work best when they are, on some level, allegories (for sexual repression, drug addiction, the fear of AIDS). Only Lovers Left Alive nods to a tainted, dwindling human blood supply, but it feels a bit thematically undercooked. It’s always a thrill to see what an artist as singular as Jarmusch will do next. I just wish that his foray into the world of the undead had a little more to sink its beautiful fangs into. B