I have on three different occasions now described Only Lovers Left Alive as Vampires Who Write for Pitchfork: The Movie, and I still don't have the damnedest idea if I mean that in a disparaging or highly complimentary way. It's that kind of movie, where the singular weirdness of it more than trumps judgments that try to pin it down into good or bad, worth-it or not-worth-it. It is absolutely and unequivocally a Jim Jarmusch picture, at any rate, infinitely friendlier than his last film, The Limits of Control, but not in the least ways suggesting that he's seen a reason to alter or modulate the beyond-deadpan sense of humor and enthusiasm for squatting quietly to the side and allowing scenes to build up slowly through character behavior rather than plot concerns, the two traits which more than anything have dominated his entire career as a filmmaker.

Superficially, Only Lovers Left Alive - a most exquisitely suggestive and nuanced title - is the most populist film Jarmusch has ever made; it is about vampires. But that's a blind if ever I saw one; the director's character-driven gangster picture Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, itself only barely interested in playing by formula rules, is far more of a traditional genre picture than this one ever wants to be. Just about the most traditional gesture in the entirety of this film is its central metaphor by which blood-hunger in vampires is a metaphor for heroin addition in rock stars and other drug dependencies in artistic types, and even that's only "tradition" insofar as vampires have a long history of being used as symbols for other things. Mostly, Only Lovers Left Alive treats the state of vampirism less as the condition of being an undead ghoul possessed by evil (of which there is no hint), nor as the more modern, Anne Rice-ey condition of being a tormented soul unable to find release (of which there is more than a hint, but mostly so it can be drily mocked); vampirism, in Jarmusch's eyes, is the state of having been long enough to have gained a perspective on life and art that a single human lifetime can't possibly accomodate. These vampires are, above all else, deeply confirmed nostalgists, very aware of what has gone by in the past and sad that it has gone, though they are also fully capable and willing to be alive in the present with all its technology and communication (herein, vampires use FaceTime, terribly casually in a way that even most normal humans in motion pictures don't).

The vampires, and the lovers in question, are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), there being at least a minor indication that they're in on the joke about their names. They've been mated for centuries, but present live on opposite sides of the globe: he's making underground club music in Detroit, she's off enjoying a quiet live in Tangier (no real explanation for why these dedicated soulmates would be separated by an ocean is given; one assumes it's the vampire equivalent of human couples spending at least one day per week away from each other to keep outside interests). Adam, far more moody and disturbed by the course of recent human history - "zombies" is their preferred epithet for alive humans - has recently begun having suicidal thoughts, and picking up on his depression, Eve heads over to the States to be with him for a time. All is calm and well in their lives until Eve's "sister" Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an unpredictable, self-indulgent loose canon, shows up and muscles her way into their lives, taking far too keen an interest in Adam's unwitting human gofer, Ian (Anton Yelchin) along the way.

I would not state some tired, trite thoughts along the lines of "Swinton and Hiddleston are the best thing about the movie", but the way Jarmusch builds scenes, it's awfully hard to disentangle the performances from the story, from the battered, warmly used sets and props, from the unusually small and domestic lighting (the production designer is Marco Bittner Rosser, the cinematographer Yorick Le Saux). At its very best moments, which far outweigh its most tiresome moments, the film does a superb job of dramatising the pleasure of being in a comfortable, low-key long-term relationship, the kind that thrives on talking about art and politics in between sex and cuddling, and would rather stay in than drive around having misadventures. Swinton and Hiddleston, both of them wrapped up in fascinatingly otherworldly make-up and a melange of out-of-time costume elements (Bina Daigeler's costumes are almost as important to building character as the actors are), exude a weirdness that's neveretheless comfortable and homey, and make domesticity look tremendously sexy in a way that films virtually never care about depicting.

All that being said, I found it impossible not to get a little itchy for lengthy stretches of the film: this is very much a film by the occasional Jarmusch who has really smart musical tastes and is fucking well going to make sure you notice them sort of like a much more erudite but also, somehow, much more obnoxious version of Garden State. There are so many conversations about this or that really gorgeous and even more obscure piece of midcentury blues or modern day underground rock that it sometimes seems if the vampires ever think about anything else but having cooler tastes than all of the rest of us. It's far beyond my place to tell a filmmaker who has given me so much pleasure, including in this very film, how much right he has to indulge his taste in lengthy musical scenes; but I do suppose that Only Lovers Left Alive is probably only entirely appealing to the viewer whose taste in music is exactly like Jarmusch's. Reader, I confess: I am not that viewer.

I am, however, the viewer whose taste in Elizabethan drama and Romantic English literature is sufficient to get - I think - all of the jokes scattered throughout about various tortured artists through the years. I do not know if this means I am necessarily glad those jokes exist: it gives the film a modestly self-congratulatory feel, like it's proud to make its audience jump through all kinds of intellectual hoops to be worthy of its cleverness. This is very different from the much more overtly complicated matter of The Limits of Control, a film that doesn't care in the slightest if we're able to keep up with it, and doesn't give us a cookie if we can; I think I like that approach better.

Still, a vague but unmistakable line of pretension doesn't keep Only Lovers Left Alive from being one of the few altogether captivating vampire pictures of recent vintage, although as far removed from anything resembling the horror genre as vampire stories can go (there's only one scene that could really be called "horror" by any strict definition, and it bothers the characters as much as it bothers us). Tinged with a melancholy awareness of time passing that's never remotely maudlin or self-congratulatory in the "we're so much cleverer than the damn kids" register that something this obsessed with analogue musical equipment could easily have been, it's a very pleasurable, unexpected portrait of people observing time passing and thinking about how it affects them and everyone around them; and its virtually non-stop picturesque, almost fairy-tale nighttime photography leave it as beautiful, in its odd way, as most movies can ever hope to be. It's acerbically playful, judgmental about the Way The World Is without being a harangue about it, and knows better than any movie I've seen in ages how stillness can give us a chance to soak up characters and their world, and for all its archness, it's as singular an experience as I've had in a long time.