The movie opens turning, the night’s stars unstuck and blurring, the 45 of Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ loping on the turntable, the twin images of our far-apart lovers reclining in their respective nests. For some minutes, everything moves clockwise. (If only the screen were a circle!) It’s an ingenious way of getting us thinking about time in broader terms. It also gets us literally into the groove of Jim Jarmusch’s latest seriocomic cosmic concoction, a blend of genre mischief, thing/place/notion fetish, corny comedic routines, ruminations on time, science, civilization and technology, and the sort of normally neglected incidentals that Jarmusch has always aspired to construct movies from—few filmmakers so clearly enjoy just watching people do stuff: roll a cigarette, dance, play dominoes, select books to travel with. Only Lovers Left Alive is itself a trip, an appropriation of vampire lore as a way to address the nature of long-term love. It’s been done before but, in my experience, never so resonantly and, despite a heavy-handed moment or two—the historical references get a little old—so lightly.
There comes a point in relationships where living apart emerges as a viable option. In the case of Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) it may have taken a century or two. Only Lovers begins with Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit—an undead city if ever there was—where he holes up in a dilapidated house making smoldering anonymous records he may or may not want people to hear. She embraces life and modernity, he’s a recluse despairing at the world’s entropic idiocy, obsessively accumulating objects from the past—though it’s notable that only Eve can carbon-date these objects with a mere touch. Adam’s gloom burgeons to the degree where suicide becomes a consideration. Eve, sensing this—there is some discussion of spooky action at a distance—takes a chain of redeyes to come meet him. But Eve’s arrival is followed by an unexpected visit from her little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), also a vampire. For a time the film becomes, of all things, a comedy about annoying in-laws who invade your place, touch your stuff, put the moves on your buddies, and drink all your blood.
From Down By Law (1986) to Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch’s films have always transmitted ambivalence toward narrative, something he seems to regard largely as scaffolding through which he can weave digressions. Only Lovers has just about the friendliest balance of story and incident in any of his later, woozier, formally looser works. Ava’s tempestuous entrance and an eventual crisis involving dwindling blood supplies give the film enough midpoint momentum to support its loveliest, less urgent passages, the White Hills concert, or a wee-hour tour of the Motor City, complete with a visit to Jack White’s house and the Michigan Theatre, a movie palace-turned parking lot, on the site where Henry Ford built the first car. (The building recently featured in Peter Mettler’s The End of Time.)
What else? The revenant fashions are to die for, the angular drones of Jozef Van Wissem score drape scenery in aural smoke, and the typically eclectic cast, which also includes Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt, accentuate the film’s supple tonal shifts. Eve is the anchor in the central relationship, but Hiddleston is the anchor in the cast, embodying both the gravity and mirth generated by this film made by a mature artist who, I’d guess, is reflecting on his own experiences negotiating love over the long term. Only Lovers is, in a sense, about the special pleasures of revisiting what’s known: books, records, friends, lovers. Or the work of beloved irreverent filmmakers who endeavour over time to keep finding new routes to explore, while adhering to certain old ideas about what their art should be, regardless of changing fashions.