NYFF Review: 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

This review was originally published on May 24, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Some jokers out there will tell you that Jim Jarmusch's new film "Only Lovers Left Alive" is about vampires. Those are the types of people the vampires in this movie roll their eyes at.

Tilda Swinton (Eve) and Thomas Hiddleston (Adam) are two "spookily entangled" (to use Einstein's phrase) individuals. Eternal outsiders. Spiritually connected. Slow moving, withdrawn and the smartest people in the room by a hundred fold. They ought to be, as they've been around since the dawn of time, seem to have knowledge of upcoming events ("Have the water wars started?" "No, they're still all about oil,") and have had a hand in creating many of mankind's major works of art. Or, part of them at least. Adam only gave Schubert a section of a symphony (an adagio) because he wanted a "reflection in the world."

A reflection? Wait, so this movie is about vampires? Well, I suppose, as the characters (and this also includes a Tangier-based "Christopher Marlowe" played by John Hurt) do need the occasional sip of blood to survive. And the pure stuff, not the tainted garbage most humans carry inside them. But this film really is about artists - committed artists who live and suffer at the fringes of society. They have intense knowledge about certain things, like the Latin names of all plants and animals, or knowing the exact date a guitar is made just by touching it, but they live in a shadow world. They can only exist at night, and even then it is just a shuffle between occasional creation and getting their next fix.

Acquiring blood is a real chore - killing is so 15th century, only done as a last resort, so wheeling and dealing with doctors being far more civilized. The nourishing sips from elegant liqueur glasses are shot in full euphoric junkie style, causing the incisors of our heroes to temporary sharpen up into excited fangs.

Hiddleston's Adam is a reclusive musician - a rock genius who layers tracks in a dilapidated but gorgeous old house in Detroit. Its interior is a tsunami of antique shop splendor, with personal effects from throughout the centuries cluttering every frame. A wall adorned in pictures (old friends?) is like the white board scene from "Cabin in the Woods" for snotty intellectuals. There's Kafka, there's Buster Keaton, there's Neil Young and so on.

Eve, who may be more of a muse than anything else, starts off in Tangier but decides to come to Detroit after an iChat with Adam. Traveling is a hassle (all those night flights) but we get the impression they don't stay apart from one another too long. Adam takes Eve on some night trips through the bombed-out industrial wasteland of Detroit. A suggested trip to the Motown museum is shot down. "I'm more of a Stax girl," Swinton says, one of a dozen note-perfect dead-pan deliveries.

Swinton (who, let's face it, actually is a vampire) is perfect here. A lesser actress would be chomping into the scenery, but she and Jarmusch have the confidence to throw half of her great lines away. You don't laugh until a beat later, when what she's said actually registers.

A bit of some actual plot starts to sneak in when Swinton's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears on the scene. Adam's go-between with the world (Anton Yelchin, hidden behind rock hair) is still hideously uncool by their standards, but for a "zombie" he's all right to hang out with for a night, a decision that leads to some unfortunate business.

The real star of this movie is the tone. It's the original music (by Jozef van Wissem and Squirrel, if that's a real thing) and the unending barrage of signifiers, sometimes literally unpacked before our eyes. Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Ornette Coleman, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, William Lawes and even Jack White all get referenced at some point along the way.

But "Only Lovers Left Alive" is an exhibit A example of how to use style to enhance substance, not overwhelm it. I was lucky enough to see this at the Cannes Film Festival, and could not help but compare it with another "Only" film debuting here, Nicolas Winding Refn's lazy and trite (though beautiful) "Only God Forgives." The distinction between an artist like Jarmusch and an all-sizzle-no-steak slave to style film like Refn is clear. Whereas "God" is posturing, "Lovers" is, by the time you get to its conclusion, a deeply affecting tale about the addiction to bad love and its consequences.

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is, in my opinion, the next great midnight classic. Much like its characters, it has no business being out in the daylight. It is hazy and dreamy and if you fall asleep for a few minutes here and there that's totally fine - perhaps even preferable. Jarmusch's last film "The Limits Of Control" failed to connect with many people (though I loved it) and this one ought to be much more of a crowd pleaser. For the right crowd, that is. Not the zombies.

SCORE: 9.2 / 10