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What, exactly, is a vampire?
Is it just a monster, a bloodsucker who feeds off the life force of humans? Or can a vampire be a repository for culture, someone who can take the long view of society and occasionally add to it?
Those are the fascinating questions that indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch brings to vampire lore in "Only Lovers Left Alive," a gorgeous rumination on life, love, death and the undead.
Jarmusch's focus is on a pair of vampires who have been married for centuries, though they're often not in the same place.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) holes up in a dilapidated house in Detroit, collecting classic electronic musical instruments to create haunting underground music. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a world traveler who at the movie's start is in Tangier, where she has befriended another vampire, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and yes, he's that Christopher Marlowe, which explains why he fed his best work to William Shakespeare. (This theme, that vampires are artists who use humans as fronts to get their work out to the public, is a fascinating one and could fill a whole other movie.)
Adam and Eve, who soon reunite in Detroit, are civilized vampires. They get their sustenance from blood banks, and Adam pays off the "zombies" (that's how they refer to us humans) who aid him, like the corruptible hospital worker (Jeffrey Wright) who provides him blood or Ian (Anton Yelchin), the rock groupie who brings him vintage guitars.
Adam and Eve's low-key existence is given a jolt with the unexpected arrival of Eve's younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava is self-centered, reckless and thirsty a combination that disrupts Adam's desire to stay off the zombies' radar.
Not a heck of a lot happens, plotwise, in "Only Lovers Left Alive," and if you're hip to Jarmusch's groove from movies like "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down by Law" or "Dead Man" this won't surprise you. He's more interested in capturing the day-to-day, or rather night-to-night, existence of these Byronesque undead. (Fun fact: Adam used to hang out with Byron and Shelley and found Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley "delicious.")
Certainly, he's picked the right actors to capture the languid lives of vampires. Hiddleston's Jaggeresque gauntness and a David Bowie doppelganger like Swinton are a perfect fit for Jarmusch's vision of vampires as rock stars forever on tour. The pair also exudes the comfortable closeness of a couple whose love is literally undying.
What Jarmusch and his stars construct in "Only Lovers Left Alive" isn't a full-bodied story of vampires, but an underworld in which these characters inhabit, love and create with passion. It's a world worth visiting, even if a lot doesn't happen there.
'Only Lovers Left Alive'
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton shine in Jim Jarmusch's atmospheric look at vampires as undying rock stars.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday.
Rating • R for language and brief nudity.
Running time • 123 minutes.