With the YA swoon of "Twilight" safely in the rearview mirror, movie vampires get their mojo back in the sensuous dreamscape of "Only Lovers Left Alive," one of the strongest films yet from Jim Jarmusch.
A filmmaker with a deep affection for outsiders, Jarmusch sets his ode to the urbane undead — and margin-dwelling artists — in two ultra-poetic cities: Detroit, a vision of trampled grandeur on the cusp of rebirth, and worldly Tangier, its alleyways alive with the murmur of illicit doings. And in Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, Jarmusch has two impossibly elegant outsiders, and perhaps the sexiest vampire couple ever to grace the screen.
They're Adam and Eve, and theirs is a May-December relationship — his 500 or so years to her several thousand. It's a marriage solid enough for them to live apart for years at a time, but when he needs her, she goes to him in Detroit, leaving the Moroccan idyll where she gets to hang with the writer Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), a fellow expatriate of the vampire persuasion.
A broody gent in the Romantic mold and a reclusive musician who disdains fame, Adam composes potent dirges in a decaying mansion that he's filling with vintage electric guitars and other collectibles of the analog age, a project aided by a sweet, resourceful young guy (Anton Yelchin) and oodles of cash. Lacking Eve's long view of the world's ups and downs, Adam's in despair over the way "zombies" — aka humans — have botched things up.
It's disappointing at first that Eve doesn't get to create music or write books like the male vampires, but it turns out that her art is something perhaps rarer: living. Eve knows, in the depths of her ancient soul, how to enjoy life, whether jonesing for hemoglobin or playing chess. The way she lifts her despondent husband is something to behold — particularly when she pulls him from his velvet sofa and they dance to the R&B single "Trapped by a Thing Called Love." It's an exquisitely tender, clothes-on erotic moment. It's also one of several instances of pitch-perfect music heard within the action of the movie, supplementing the plangent score by Jozef Van Wissem and Jarmusch's noise band Squrl.
Having moved beyond the old ways, Adam, Eve and Marlowe bare their fangs only to smile. They sip their O-negative from aperitif glasses and procure it from medical professionals, among them a hospital lab technician played by Jeffrey Wright in a couple of jokey scenes that don't always work, as good as Wright is.
The finely honed system, along with Adam and Eve's peace, is threatened with the arrival of her obnoxious little sister (a giddily gauche Mia Wasikowska).
The movie's dry humor suits the characters, but its sly literary allusions threaten to tip into the self-congratulatory. A wall of photographic portraits (among them Poe, Twain, Wilde and Iggy Pop) feels more like Jarmusch's tribute than Adam's. Worse, though, are the banal swipes at Los Angeles that the writer-director puts in Adam's mouth.
But those are quibbles. The unhurried film is a beauty. Shooting digitally — a first for Jarmusch and a paradox for a movie that so ardently celebrates the artisanal — cinematographer Yorick Le Saux uses nocturnal lighting to eloquent effect. The titular lovers are beauties too, soulful and captivating. Swinton and Hiddleston make their love story one for the ages.
"Only Lovers Left Alive" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language and brief nudity)
Running time: 2:02
Opens: Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, Cinemark Century 12, Evanston
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