At first blush, the idea of Jim Jarmusch making a vampire movie seems like cause for alarm. Jarmusch is one of the few American directors so aggressively independent that he owns most of his own films — not the kind of guy who's prone to jumping onto bandwagons, much less onto Twilight-derived bandwagons. Any concern is misplaced, however, as Jarmusch, true to form, isn't really interested in vampires at all. 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), and various other aspects of the standard vampire mythology get namechecked. That's just a smokescreen, though. What really interests Jarmusch is immortality, or at least longevity. How would we behave if we lived for centuries, and were 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 large, decaying mansion, while Eve is holed up in Tangier, keeping company with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) — the Christopher Marlowe. (He too turns out to be a vampire, as well as the true author of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.) Despite this geographical separation, which has gone on for years, Adam and Eve are clearly in love, and keep in constant touch with each other via the latest technology, which they both hugely enjoy. But their passion also extends to mankind's greatest achievements from the past: vintage guitars, architectural marvels, scientific nomenclature, obscure Motown hits, etc. In this world, the vampire's primary function is to appreciate the things we humans take for granted; they're much more like curators than monsters.
For about an hour, Only Lovers Left Alive is completely, blissfully plot-free. Eve jets to Detroit, at Adam's request, and they show each other awesome things they've found since their last reunion, or stroll around the city at night admiring its dilapidated beauty (and oohing when they come across the house where Jack White grew up). Some wags have compared this lengthy initial movement to James Franco's famous "look at my shit!" routine in last year's Spring Breakers, but Only Lovers' vibe is less narcissistic, more celebratory; it's closer in temperament to the scene in Manhattan that sees Woody Allen's alter ego list all of the things that make life worth living. Rapture piles upon rapture until the movie seems as if it might burst at any moment from an excess of feeling, and Jarmusch sustains the euphoria longer than it seems possible.
He can't sustain it forever, alas. 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 (chronologically as well as physically; vampires don't age once turned) and hasn't yet learned to control and direct 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 had previously been rambling and unhurried transforms Only Lovers Left Alive from a gorgeous requiem for the human race into a series of fun but comparatively frivolous riffs — much closer to the general idea of "Jim Jarmusch does a vampire movie." 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 only disappointing because Jarmusch had seemed so tantalizingly close to achieving something unprecedented, and almost unbearably moving.