There’s a lot to love about this swoony, drifty vampire flick, a sensual opium dream which unfurls in a lushly-colored musical haze. Tilda Swinton was born to play a vampire, with her giant sepulcher-face full of bones. She’s magnetic, as are the cityscapes, a bleached-white Tangiers and half-abandoned Detroit.
The blood=drug equation isn’t subtle, but there’s a subtler, haunting motif of music and nostalgia as ecstatic drugs in which we lose ourselves. The vampires are drunk on their own pasts: They knew Lord Byron! They knew Detroit when it meant power and pride. I often find that music opens a door in the mind, a door which leads back to the unresolved, regretted or longed-for past. This use of music as time-machine can become a way of fleeing from the present-day self, its loves and responsibilities; this is a theme which Only Lovers hits hard, in its depiction of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton, I’m as sorry about these names as you are) as vampire lovers who profess devotion but spend most of their time on separate continents.
I didn’t find these vampires likable or particularly entrancing, unlike their richly-textured settings. They’re connoisseurs. They can tell the make and date of a guitar by stroking it; Adam, with his elitist resentment, is a half-step away from posting YouTube comments-box rants about sheeple. There’s a satirical edge here: the vampire as hipster, as Miniver Cheevy with a LP collection. But the movie isn’t contemptuous of its subjects. Adam’s endless knowledge eventually becomes boring; but the sensual pleasure the movie takes in the shapes and surfaces of musical instruments, the autumnal crackle of a vinyl record or the squeaky stutter of cassette tape, transmits itself to the viewer. I loved the steampunky bit with Adam’s jury-rigged, century-spanning Skype setup.
I did feel a lack of tension or propulsive force. That’s very form-follows-function—the vampires themselves ooze ennui and exhaustion, which is their right as Europeans—but it is, how you say, not much fun. I would have liked more fear of death (what do they think is waiting for them, once they finally give up clutching at one more lifetime?) or maybe I’d like to be less fully embedded in the jaded, detached vampiric worldview. I suspect other viewers will consider these aspects to be features rather than flaws. Only Lovers is a powerful depiction of the opiate pull of music, and the thanatostalgia which comes from too much hopeless love of the past. I would’ve adored this movie in high school, mostly for the wrong reasons. I’m so glad to grow older, as the song says.