Jim Jarmusch’s characters have often lived like vampires, creeping out of old haunts and dusty motel rooms to explore areas at night. The only difference is that the people in the director’s other films always feel of the present, while the immortals of Only Lovers Left Alive are most decidedly of the past. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) carry with them centuries of culture: literary classics in every language, not to mention stacks and stacks of vinyl. One of the earliest scenes of the film consists primarily of loving close-ups of vintage guitars unveiled for an appreciative Adam, his mortal lackey, Ian (Anton Yelchin), assuring him that they all come with their original electronics.
So, yes, these are “hipster vampires,” as fans and detractors alike have dubbed them, and Jarmusch wrings humor out of Adam’s despair at the dearth of good art in the present day. Here is the first vampire to contemplate suicide not out of moral guilt or weariness, but because they just don’t make ’em like they used to. Even his FaceTimes are hilariously antiquated, having rigged up a system that relies on an old tube TV while Eve uses an iPhone like a normal person.
That the protagonists are too cool to live and too smart to die doesn’t preclude Jarmusch from mining them for material that caters to and gently upends generic expectations. The undead naturally exist at the filmmaker’s pace: They speak with slow deliberation and move with purpose, not too far removed from the theatrically glacial gestures of Draculas from Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman. And the combination of erotic and addictive impulses are clearly on display, with the characters dressed up in heroin-chic clothes and believably mussed hair for creatures who have no access to mirrors. No one fits this profile better than Adam and Eve’s cohort Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who seems to walk into the frame from a ’90s fashion runway. If Adam and Eve have tamped down their bloodlust into a non-lethal, almost dignified act, Ava visibly joneses for a fix.
If a tenet of contemporary vampire fiction is its need to be sexy, the film succeeds on all counts. Jarmusch gets the most out of his actors’ physical presence, from Hiddleston in an open robe crouching over a guitar as he churns out noise rock to the glint that manages to pierce the sunglasses on Wasikowska’s face as Ava sizes up poor, sweet Ian. Compared to the hormonal and lustful depictions of vampiric relations that take up so much space on store bookshelves, however, there’s a settled feeling to this sex, truer to the relationship between an older couple who’ve known each other for most their lives. Still, even vampires need to spice things up from time to time, and the darkly comic finale could be interpreted as the lovers reigniting their passion by replicating their first date, dinner and a show.
Like all Jarmusch films, Only Lovers Left Alive is very funny, with numerous allusive puns and terrific exchanges that follow from the indulgence of urges. (Choice quote: “I feel sick.” “Well what do you expect? He’s from the fucking music industry!”) Nonetheless, if Jarmusch doesn’t necessarily share his characters’ sense of gloom about the current state of art, he clearly believes in their pack-rat love of cultural history. Dust has rarely been so lovingly filmed as it is when the camera glides over old LPs, and the quiver of awe and reverence in Eve’s voice when she breathlessly exclaims, “I love Jack White,” outside the man’s home is deeply felt. Even a running gag involving talk of the vampiric Christopher Marlowe’s (John Hurt) authorship of Shakespeare’s plays contains an element of earnestness to it, with Eve’s desire to shake up the world with confirmation of this rumor perhaps owing to the belief that revision of the past is now the only way to make the present more fun.
Digital’s low-light capacity suits Jim Jarmusch’s nocturnal cinema well, and Sony’s Blu-ray faithfully replicates the film’s deep shadows and chromatic palettes, portraying an abandoned Detroit and ancient Tangier as equally rich, historical, and beautiful. The transfer also captures those moments of blinding incandescence when a light source occasionally enters the frame. Audio is similarly strong; this is a surprisingly loud film thanks to the score from Jarmusch’s noise band SQÜRL, and the lossless 5.1 surround mixes the quiet, droll speech with the detuned grinding without issue.
Mercifully bereft of needlessly explanatory talking heads, the 50-minute doc "Travelling at Night" lets its behind-the-scenes footage breathe as organically as the film proper, and at times it can be as hypnotic to watch the actors in makeup and studying their marks as it is to watch them in true action. The disc also includes 26 minutes of deleted and extended scenes of largely unrelated material, emphasizing how much of the film’s images were built around mood and free association over narrative structure. Finally, a performance late in the film from Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan is turned into a music video, excising shots of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton to focus on the singer.
Sony’s Blu-ray may be light on extras, but the charms of Jim Jarmusch’s funny, sexy, and elegiac vampire movie speak for themselves.