There’s no mistaking a Jim Jarmusch film. It’s been 30 years since the writer/director’s breakthrough second feature Stranger Than Paradise became bedrock for a new era of independent American film. Jarmusch doesn’t work as often as he once did, if only because it has become harder to finance original films. But he has stuck with his signature style, using long silences, deadpan humor and beautifully composed images. You don’t watch a Jarmusch film so much as let it wash over you. His gorgeous transatlantic vampire story Only Lovers Left Alive won’t win him many new fans, but it should be cause for celebration among converts. Like Jarmusch’s best films, it’s short on plot but long on character, atmosphere and ideas.
Cultured vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are deeply in love and have been married for centuries but currently occupy different continents. He’s a depressed but brilliant underground rock musician who lives in the decaying urban wilderness of Detroit. She resides in Tangier, Morocco and derives real pleasure from daily experience — especially great books. After Adam’s existential crisis brings the couple together physically, they drink “the good stuff” (clean type O negative) from antique cocktail glasses and interrupt the story enjoy a vintage 45 (Charlie Feathers’ “Can’t Hardly Stand It”) or stumble across a club show by another underground icon (Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan). Their old friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) ghostwrote all of Shakespeare’s works.
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It would be easy to dismiss Adam and Eve as self-absorbed hipsters. But they find themselves still alive at a time when short-sighted humans (known here as “zombies”) are casually destroying the natural world — and when no self-respecting vampire would stoop to feeding on their environmentally contaminated blood. The couple takes refuge in their love for art and each other, their detachment a product of circumstance. Like the replicants in Blade Runner, they’re actually more human than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Hiddleston’s and Swinton’s affecting performances make that distinction possible.
Great cities often serve as a main character in Jarmusch’s films, including Memphis (Mystery Train) and New Orleans (Down By Law), and No Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Detroit becomes the third facet of a brooding character study, the once-grand city now a symbol of economic neglect and cultural decline. As shot by Jarmusch, it’s also a place of ragged beauty. Sometimes a conventional plot is the last thing a film really needs.
Only Lovers Left Alive starts today, Friday, May 9, at the Canal Place and Elmwood Palace theaters.