It seems inevitable that Tilda Swinton would one day play a vampire. With her deep, dark eyes and pallid complexion, she could easily be one of the children of the night. Plus, pop culture has anointed her as a kind of doppleganger to the similarly androgynous David Bowie, and the Thin White Duke played an undead blood-drinker in 1983's The Hunger.
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive seems less influenced by Dracula lore than the demands and mystique of celebrity on the David Bowie level. The film explores the timeless relationship between two married vampires, played by Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, and nods to the conventions of the vampire genre. Even more, Only Lovers Left Alive meditates on the costs of creative genius, privacy and fame, although "infamy" might better convey the vampires' status.
In a sign of Jarmusch's deadpan irony, the couple in question are named Adam and Eve (but probably aren't that Adam and Eve). Swinton's Eve lives in Tangiers and proves fairly social, mingling with a human ally and a decrepit fellow vampire (John Hurt), who has a deep connection to Elizabethan literature. Eve frequently lapses into slow, sinuous, joyful dance moves and embraces a philosophy of carpe diem. Or carpe noctem? I don't think the film ever shows sunlight.
Meanwhile, Adam literally lives as a reclusive rock star, holed up in an obscure corner of Detroit, which Jarmusch presents as an almost comically desolate wasteland. Adam collects classic instruments, composes music and hides from the occasional fans that show up on his doorstep. A sketchy doctor (Jeffrey Wright) provides him with blood, while a human agent (Anton Yelchin) runs errands and naively worries for his welfare. Adam has a mop of black hair like the Cure's Robert Smith, but unlike a fashionably morose Goth fan, he literally contemplates suicide.
Eve flies to Detroit to reunite with her husband and try to pull him out of his funk, while also bringing complications that disrupt his privacy. Swinton and Hiddleston's performances convey that Adam and Eve remain deeply in love despite their opposing personalities: They're like two planets locked in orbit. Swinton conveys Eve's delight with the world despite her centuries of existence, while Hiddleston captures the weariness of an old soul with little will to go on.
Only Lovers Left Alive affirms Jarmusch's reputation for deadpan, deliberately paced film experiences, and his long, swoony shots of the characters driving down Detroit's streets or strolling Tangiers' alleys become almost hypnotic. The flip side of the approach makes the film feel a little too slow and uneventful, with Mia Wasikowska's appearance as a wild-child role coming too late and leaving too soon.
The film hints that some bits of vampire tradition are merely superstition, but they definitely need blood to survive. When they drink, their heads roll back and the camera zooms in close, like a shot from Trainspotting, suggesting that they could be celebrity drug addicts.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Only Lovers Left Alive is the vampire's mixed feelings toward human beings, whom they call "zombies" in an implicit commentary on mankind's intellectual limitations and proliferation. They're contemptuous of people for having increasing levels of "contaminants" in their blood, which could be due to pollution, processed food or some other side effect of modernity. Yet Eve in particular has a namedropper's fascination with artistic and scientific geniuses, from Byron to Tesla. Some of them could be fellow vampires, but the film suggests they're merely extraordinary, history-changing individuals, who deserve the admiration even of immortal monsters.
By the end, Adam and Eve both realize that no matter how much they applaud or condescend to "zombies," they can't go without humans for sustenance, and that vampires have a status that's both predatory and parasitical. No matter how great, an artist can't survive without an audience.