The idea of Jim Jarmusch making a vampire movie seems like cause for alarm. He is one of the few American directors so independent that he owns most of his own films - not the kind of guy given to jumping onto the Twilight bandwagon.
But Jarmusch isn't really interested in vampires. Oh, he goes through the motions: To the limited extent that Only Lovers Left Alive has a story, it mostly involves efforts to obtain human blood (preferably without violence). Other aspects of the standard vampire mythology get name-checked, too, but that's just so much empty fog. What fascinates Jarmusch is immortality, or at least longevity. How would we behave if we lived for centuries, free to do pretty much anything we wanted? What sort of aesthetes and collectors might we become?
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), as their names suggest, have been around for a long, long time. As the movie begins, Adam lives in Detroit, occupying a decaying mansion, while Eve is holed up in Tangier, keeping company with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) - the Christopher Marlowe. Despite this geographical separation, which has gone on for years, Adam and Eve remain in love, and keep in constant touch with each other via the latest technology (though Adam's version of that tech is defiantly analog-derived). And their shared passion extends t o humankind's greatest achievements from the past: vintage guitars, architectural marvels, Latin taxonomy, obscure blues 45s. In Jarmusch's version of the vampire realm, the undead's primary function is to appreciate the things we humans take for granted. Adam and Eve aren't monsters - they're curators.
For about an hour, Only Lovers Left Alive stays blissfully plot-free. Eve jets to Detroit, and she and Adam roll around the city at night to admire its dilapidated beauty (with a reverent ooooh for the house where Jack White grew up). It's a kind of nocturnal companion to the scene in Manhattan in which Woody Allen's alter ego lists all of the things that make life worth living. Rapture piles upon rapture until the movie seems as if it might burst from an excess of feeling.
Eventually, a story does emerge, kicked off by the belated arrival of Eve's troublemaking sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who's much younger than the other two vampires and hasn't yet learned to control her appetites. The second half of the film has its own pleasures and concludes on a lovely grace note, but the introduction of a narrative into what until then has been rambling and unhurried transforms Only Lovers Left Alive from a gorgeous requiem for the human race into a series of amusing but comparatively frivolous riffs. Even this lesser half ranks firmly among the year's best films so far, giving its three terrific actors plenty of opportunities to draw both metaphorical and literal blood. It's disappointing only because Jarmusch had seemed so tantalizingly close to achieving something unprecedented, something almost unbearably moving.