Nostalgia’s a strange habit for an undead creature, but that doesn’t stop Adam, a vampire rocker in Jarmusch’s latest, from keeping a curmudgeonly lament on permanent simmer. People—i.e., humans—just never learn when it comes to preserving culture, or the Earth. His pale partner, Eve, retains a sense of wonder, and patience, and she knows how to flick gently at his pessimism: “How can you have lived so long and still not get it?” Yet theirs is still a “marriage of true minds,” to quote Shakespeare, or Marlowe, as Jarmusch playfully has it, in this tender, and perhaps personal, romance.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) belong to each other but they also belong to a rare breed, revived. If Jarmusch filters the West through Blake in Dead Man and remixes samurai codes in Ghost Dog, here he taps the conceit of the vampire as oldest-of-old-school hipster, communing with artists across the ages. When the nocturnal film begins, drone rocker Adam is laying low in the photographically popular ruin of Detroit. Eve leaves bohemian Tangier to join him in his crumbling mansion pad, crammed with rare guitars and vinyl. Adam knew Byron; he and Eve were dead before it was cool. For bloodwork, the couple drinks only “the good stuff” with druggie abandon; a hypnotic opening overhead shot is a ringer for a scene of post-high bliss. The biggest downer is when Eve’s kid sister visits from (shudder) LA and wrecks everything.
Is Only Lovers Jarmusch’s lament for seeing his own city disappear? The rueful, besieged reality of Adam and Eve’s existence comes through more than just a useful piece of comic irony (the vampires even resemble famous people in wishing to avoid recognition, and wearing shades at night). Jarmusch in a way has been making “late movies” for years now, but what grabs hold of your heart here isn’t the film’s askew reality but the spreading warmth of Adam and Eve’s very poignant bond.
The whole movie, shot by Yorick Le Saux and as serenely paced as Jarmusch’s best, wraps us in night and the quiet of Adam’s hideaway, outfitted with dated surveillance monitors; Tangier gets its own whispery glow. Hiddleston and Swinton are an effortless fit for their parts, with Swinton finding a truly intoxicating undertow of weariness and care (cf. beautiful readings such as, “It’s always a bit weird with family”). What seems a potentially glib setup proves to hold double layers of meaning both epochal, in the sense of past ages collapsed into a postmodern yet conservative present, and romantic, in love’s timeless embrace.