There is something beguiling about the notion of living forever, to move at a languid pace afforded only by the knowledge that there will always be a tomorrow. Immortality fuels fantasies of acquiring vast personal collections of what counts as treasure, and to have all the time they need to get done what they feel they must accomplish. It’s a big reason why we love vampires so much; their endless lives seem awfully attractive, especially when further gifted with eternal youth. Sure, there’s the need to drink blood, stay out of the sunlight and hope nobody finds out what you really are, but nothing is without cost, right? This is the territory of Only Lovers Left Alive, one of the most low-key and romantic vampire movies made in recent years, mainly because one almost forgets that its main characters are vampires, and focuses instead on how they have made their marriage work for the last few hundred years.
The story takes place in the ruins of Detroit, where the vampire Adam lives in seclusion while recording rock music on rebuilt retro equipment and dealing with a volatile mix of feelings: a desire to be a great artist after having inspired so many throughout the centuries, but not wanting to get the fame that would make his life as a vampire impossible. Meanwhile, his wife, Eve, lives halfway around the world in Tangiers, where she hangs out with playwright Kit Marlowe, who is also a vampire and faked his death some 500 years ago. All of them live quietly in the shadows, finding ways to secure pure blood without actually hunting and killing people. It’s all worked out pretty well, but when Adam becomes despondent and suicidal, Eve gets on an overnight plane and flies to his aid, and they enjoy a long-awaited reunion that is shattered when Eve’s wild vampire sister Ava shows up uninvited and wreaks havoc on Adam’s carefully concealed identity with her wanton and reckless ways. And that’s it. That’s the story.
This is a deeply offbeat vampire movie that is dripping with atmosphere and moodiness. From Adam’s ramshackle hermitage in post-industrial Detroit to Eve’s luxurious seclusion in a Tangiers that is both ancient and modern, we get a glimpse of a lifetime that progresses night by night, but is counted in decades and centuries. Adam, Eve, and even Kit provide the most sympathetic vampires one is ever likely to see, wishing only to be left alone as they seek what appears to be a steadily dwindling food supply of “pure stuff,” thanks to increasing levels of environmental contaminants found in human blood worldwide. One gets the feeling that there are so few vampires left not because they have been hunted into extinction, but because most of them have simply starved to death. This lends a real melancholy to the story’ proceedings, as we see no real joy in any of our vampires. There is no thrill of the hunt, there is no exultation in power. Just the temporary relief that comes with drinking blood and a growing disdain for a humanity that seems to have squandered itself. As Adam falls deeper into his despair, it’s easy to see how he got there. After spending a few centuries providing secret inspiration to the greatest artistic and scientific minds that ever lived, Adam no longer sees where the next one might come from, so what else is there to live for? The answer, Eve must remind him every hundred years or so, is love.
Ultimately, this isn’t so much a vampire movie as it is a love story between two people whose lives are such that they have to lean on each other…which is how any good relationship should be, really. As we see Adam and Eve drift off in each others’ arms night after night, they seem like a pair of happy addicts living within the confines of their endless need. But their love is so enduring that we’d be forgiven for wanting to have just a little of what they have in each other.
This movie is all about tone, so there is almost no story to drive things, but the most we get is the appearance of Ava, a spoiled brat who tends to destroy everything around her without any thought towards others. In a more conventional vampire movie, she would be more overtly evil, more agenda-driven. But no, she is just reckless, thoughtless and easily jeopardizes whatever life Adam and Eve can build for themselves. There is no great vampire fight to resolve things here, just an argument over a squandered blood supply, a killing when there didn’t need to be one, and way more attention than Adam and Eve are comfortable with. The moment of truth comes as they throw Ava out, and her front crumbles. She knows that she can’t live forever like this; she will eventually either end up drinking bad blood or reveal herself to her prey and get killed. And Adam and Eve can no longer care. Even immortals sometimes need to throw toxic people out of their lives. We know that when Ava leaves that she hasn’t much longer in this world. However it ends for her, it will end, it will be soon, and it will not go well. That’s hard for anybody to swallow, but especially those who don’t think they will ever die. Maybe if Ava had someone, she wouldn’t be in such peril. Isn’t that true of us all?
As for Adam and Eve, one gets the feeling that they decided long ago that they would rather die than hunt again. Once they are without the food supply they built for themselves, they will get a chance to see how much that still holds true after all these years. Faced with an otherwise certain demise, they know that even for the undead, the things worth dying for are the same things worth living for: each other.