Only Lovers Left Alive centers on the appropriately named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), vampires who have lived and loved for hundreds and hundreds of years. Adam is a reclusive musician living in Detroit; Eve is a literary hound living in Tangiers, Morocco, with her longtime friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Certain circumstances force one to finally travel and meet the other, and the first half of the film just follows Adam and Eve around as they spend time together, take midnight drives, play chess, drink blood. Things take a chaotic turn in the second half when Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) visits from Los Angeles, but the majority of the film focuses on Adam and Eve.
The whole thing would be moot without two very capable actors to hold it down; in the wrong hands, Only Lovers Left Alive would be pretentious and unbearably full of itself. But Tilda Swinton—who has been on fire this year between this, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Snowpiercer—and Tom Hiddleston—most well-known as Loki in The Avengers and Thor—are nothing short of perfect. Adam and Eve feel lived-in, like they really have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. They interact with each other so comfortably and so naturally. They flirt as only lifelong lovers can. Hiddleston, always clad in black, feels weighed down by his years of existence, depressed at humanity’s endless cycles of death and destruction and choosing to hole himself up in his dilapidated Detroit apartment. Swinton is the opposite; always in white, she soaks herself in humanity, visiting Moroccan cafes and relaxing down by the docks. Swinton and Hiddleston inhabit these characters so fully and make these nearly immortal hip vampires believable and beautiful. I could watch them hang out for hours.
Only Lovers Left Alive also creates an atmosphere I just wanted to wrap myself in. Adam prowls the dark, abandoned streets of Detroit in his retrofitted white 80s Jaguar; Eve stalks the orange- and green-tinted alleyways of Tangiers wrapped in her white shawls and other articles of clothing. The exceptional soundtrack by lute player Jozef van Wissem and director Jim Jarmusch’s own band SQÜRL is appropriately split into two halves: Detroit and Tangiers. Each half is distinct due to instrumentation and style—Detroit features echoic electric guitars and methodic drums, while Tangier relies more on van Wissem’s lute—but are united in their dark, sensual mood. It’s my favorite musical score of the year because it’s at once beautiful and moody and it provides a perfect accompaniment to what we see on screen. It’s impossible to imagine Adam and Eve wandering around after dark without the eerie, sensual lute always present in the background, and it’s equally impossible to listen to the ancient guitar without visualizing the pair of star-crossed immortal lovers strolling the backstreets.
The film establishes the basics about the ins and outs of the ways vampires live and function easily and quickly. In our modern medical age, they take blood from banks and hospitals rather than gruesomely drawing from right from the source. Drinking blood has a kind of narcotic effect. These details and others are established not through clunky exposition or voiceovers, but just in the way Adam and Eve go about their lives. They have settled into certain habits one would expect from centuries-old beings. But all these details of vampire life remain just that: details. The film is most interested in the simple fact that Adam and Eve have existed for so long, and they have spent their time becoming knowledgeable about the world, about the arts and the sciences. Adam has known the greatest musical minds in human history and uses Tesla’s rejected ideas to power his home; Eve reads books in every language from every time period and hangs out with the still-living actual author of Shakespeare’s works. It’s fascinating to watch the two of them lazing around, musing about how cool Mary Wollstonecraft was, or why Adam gave that one piece to Schubert that one time, or how all the really fun stuff was in the Middle Ages and the Crusades.
Only Lovers Left Alive is more than anything a love story, sensual and fascinating, beautifully realized with cinematography and music and brought to life by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year.