To live forever: Ah, the things one would see. The premise just reeks of cinematic potential, yet few vampire films successfully capture both the magic and melancholy that must accompany the blessing – and curse – of immortality. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive does just that, offering up a haunting, unique addition to the genre before collapsing in the second half under its own slow pacing, two-hour runtime and almost total lack of energy and plot.
Adam is not your typical vampire. He doesn’t bite people or long to seduce his next victim. That’s all so medieval to him. Instead, he stays secluded in a derelict Detroit mansion, composing music, bemoaning what “zombies” (humans) have done to civilization and longing for the good old days of the Renaissance – or even the comparatively enlightened 1960s. He has but three regular acquaintances: a doctor he bribes for blood, a devoted gopher whom he trusts to run errands, and the love of his life. The latter (Eve to his Adam, literally), a vampire herself, lives in Tangier, Morocco, and is a close friend of another eternal dweller, Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Marlowe.
Adam and Eve, who comes to visit him, don’t flaunt their supernatural abilities. Instead, they almost wallow in them, helped along visually by the film’s slow fades and swirling overhead shots. By night, they roam the real ruins of a formerly great American city, making us also fear for the fate of the world and giving the film a delicious time-travel tone. By day, they sleep, listen to vinyl and embrace the lifestyle of a “suicidally romantic scoundrel.”
The first 60 minutes are among the best the genre has ever seen outside of Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 masterpiece, and actually make you forget you’re watching a vampire flick. But then two unfortunate things happen: Eve’s sister, Ava, visits the two lovers and completely alters the film’s chemistry, and Jarmusch, in an apparent display of screenwriting overconfidence, gives us virtually nothing in the overly long second half. Sure, there are subplots involving Ava and Marlowe, but by the time the credits roll, the eerie mood and originality have faded away.
The stellar cast cannot be blamed for the failings. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are perfect as Adam and Eve, and John Hurt is memorable as Marlowe. Jeffrey Wright, in a tiny but well-written part as the doctor, is superbly comic in a deliciously dark way. Mia Wasikowska, as Ava, is not as effective but nevertheless does what the script demands.
Only Lovers is on par with Jarmusch’s Down by Law, which also failed to capitalize on its considerable strengths. But if you liked that one, or are a lover of all things vampire, this may be just your cup of hemoglobin. Even for this reviewer, who is only half-heartedly drawn to the genre, the film’s allure was difficult to resist. Yet after the tedium of the second 60 minutes, I was drained dry.
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