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Edelstein on Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive: This Vampire Tale Is a Charming Dirge

Unlike the other art house horror flick in theaters now, the metabolically invasive Under the Skin, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is more of an arm’s-length experience, but it’s a neat little comedy about deadpan hipsters — deadpan undead hipsters. The movie opens with a shot of a revolving record that segues into a revolving shot of a splayed-out Tilda Swinton (Eve) and another of Tom Hiddleston (Adam). Will they, too, go the way of the 45? The couple comes together and hits the streets of Detroit, that famously dying city where the underground music scene still lives and they don’t look a bit out of place. The obvious parallel is to junkies, but of the most serene and beneficent sort. They’re nonviolent (they slurp blood bank blood) and, despite their lack of affect, engaged. In bed, their limbs entwined, they are exquisite. They’re not just hip — they confer hipness on their ramshackle surroundings.

The movie has its longeurs, but once you get on its wavelength it’s hard to resist. Learning to love Jarmusch’s work means sensitizing yourself to the passion under what can sometimes seem snobbish and withholding — to the director’s genuine disgust with the drug that is mainstream pop culture and its corporate underpinnings. Jarmusch’s vampires think longingly of the age of Lord Byron and the guitar work of Eddie Cochrane. (Adam cherishes vintage guitars.) Their mentor is called Marlowe and played by John Hurt, an actor who comes with his own cobwebs; he, too, has a backward gaze and a rasp that’s redolent of pain and loss.

The cast isn’t much bigger than that. Anton Yelchin is a cute little guy who procures the niftiest old guitars, and Mia Wasikowska with a devil grin wakes the movie up as a hedonistic vampire with zero self-control — she makes a mess of things as some vampires will. Do I detect a note of self-satire in Jarmusch’s undead? I’d like to think he’s poking fun at his own stylized, white-boy cool. But underneath, of course, he’s deadly serious. A ruined metropolis, a snatch of dialogue about coming water wars, a poisoned blood supply: The garden of Adam and Eve is despoiled beyond remedy. This is a charming dirge, though.