Highbrow, Lowbrow, Unibrow: A movie review of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive,’ in which vampires are snobs

Despite box office revenue of immortal proportions, it’s fair to say that when the last entry in the “The Twilight Saga” came and went, the moviegoing masses had finally had enough of vampire tales. The metaphorically rich subject — forgive me for a moment — had apparently bled dry.

But creative droughts don’t last forever, unlike the appeal of the bloodsucker. So genre fatigue should not keep anyone — again, I’m sorry — from sinking their teeth into “Only Lovers Left Alive,” writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s exquisitely slow and sardonic take on eternal creatures of the night. The lovers here are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two vamps stuck in a 21st-century funk.

Dark and brooding with self-pitying gothic eyes, Adam is a recluse. Holed up in his run-down Detroit home, he bemoans modern civilization and its propensity for self-indulgent pleasures in art and life. Humans, to him, are zombies — all libido, no brains. Gone are the days of highbrow works from the likes of Romantic era activist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he fondly remembers, or the 16th century dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who lives on in the form of the great English actor John Hurt.

Eve, on the other hand, isn’t much of a misanthrope, but she understands her husband’s aesthetic predicament and tries to pull him out of a legendary malaise. There is one other pressing matter for the pale couple, which is logistical in nature: how to acquire uncontaminated human blood — “the good stuff” — on which to subsist without taking it directly from the source, risking exposure or blood poisoning.

“That’s so 15th century,” Eve tells Adam in a moment of desperation that forces him to suggest feeding on a nearby couple engaged in purely carnal pleasures.

In the scene, the stakes aren’t high so much as they are sharp: do the fanged snobs languish away or finally decide to join the herd? As that tension pervades the film, Jarmusch pokes fun at it in a sumptuous attempt to reconcile the sophisticated with the trash, or at least acknowledge how the two need each other to thrive.

His film owes as much to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” as it does Shakespeare, whose influence looms over the entire movie as a reliable reference point to identify fine cultural tastes. Stoker was more of a sensationalist and Shakespeare a true genius, but both produced works we now consider classics, and “Only Lovers Left Alive” exists somewhere in between.

After all, both Hiddleston and Swinton are classically trained actors. They are so committed to their roles that it’s forgivable to think the film takes itself too seriously. The sheer filmmaking craft on display doesn’t help either. The long takes and luscious set design are hypnotizing, and combined with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s tangible shadows and colors, the movie’s overall effect becomes that sensuous spell referred to by some as cinema.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Sept. 11, 2014.


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