In “Only Lovers Left Alive,” writer-director Jim Jarmusch turns one of his silliest notions into one of the more affecting movies of his career. The idea is that two members of this director’s classic demimonde — pale downtown types, achingly hip, up all night, in this case addicts — are actually vampires, whose junk is our blood. It sounds a little obvious, especially when you hear the characters’ names: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Oy, indeed. But maybe Jarmusch is tired of chasing Zen rabbits down their holes, brilliantly in the case of “Broken Flowers” (2005), much less so in “The Limits of Control” (2009). “Only Lovers Left Alive” is disarmingly direct and charmingly directed; it’s a bona fide love story, if an exhausted and occasionally thin one.
Our lovers are living in separate cities when the movie begins, not because they need a break but because when your relationship has been going on for centuries, you’re always together, even when you’re not. Eve is in Tangiers, serene as a cat, a character out of a Paul Bowles novel. Adam is holed up in a decaying mansion on the outskirts of Detroit, a rock ’n’ roll recluse in a city whose toxic midnight decay the movie finds oddly beautiful.
Neither is into the whole violence thing. Adam buys his blood by the bag from a mystified medical technician (Geoffrey Wright), while Eve gets the good stuff from desiccated fellow expatriate Kit (John Hurt), who has a few secrets that scholars of English literature might want to hear. They drink their fixes out of stylish glasses, flasks, cups, giving such artifacts the same sort of attention a junkie gives his works. The high looks about the same, too, and so does the coming down.
Sensing that her soul mate is drifting more than usual, Eve hops the first red-eye home; if Nosferatu once had to go by coffin in a boat, “Only Lovers Left Alive” observes that vampire travel is far easier in the 21st century, when you can book night flights. Arriving in Detroit, she meets Adam’s closest warm-blooded confidant, Ian (Anton Yelchin), a goofy, gallant enabler who takes his boss’s doomy rock compositions out into club-land while finding him rare guitars. Ian would be Adam’s Renfield if he had any idea what was going on.
Hiddleston is best known to moviegoers as Loki in the “Thor” films and in “The Avengers,” where he gives his villain’s role an edge of playful malice. Adam, by contrast, has no play left, and the eons have worn him down to inertia. He’s like a rock star whose last hit record was in 1723. “Only Lovers Left Alive” works because Adam and Eve are a believable couple — he’s the broody one, she functions well in the world, and so forth — and because Swinton has rarely seemed so tender. The actress exchanges her trademark severity for a calm, even warm embrace of her lover and their, um, alternative lifestyle. She may be undead, but she’s sensible.
The first movie to plow this turf — vampirism as a playground for attractive bohemians — was “The Hunger,” the 1983 Tony Scott film in which David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon went elegantly at each others’ throats. (The most recent was the under-appreciated “Byzantium,” with Saoirse Ronan.) The genre requires a central couple and a wild card or two, human or not. “Only Lovers Left Alive” has the former with Ian and the latter with Adam’s kid sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a bratty, self-absorbed user who turns up mid-movie and proceeds to make a mess of things, as only family can. Everyone plays against the grain of their usual types in this movie, and Wasikowska has a hoot as a party-girl extrovert -- a sort of Holly Go-Deadly.
Even though he’s shooting in digital, cinematographer Yorick le Saux casts the movie in amber tones that feel analog, like an old vinyl LP or a 40-watt light bulb, and the soundtrack is rich with pop nuggets and guitar squalls out of an Astor Place record store rack. “Only Lovers Left Alive” sometimes has the feel of a wee-hours radio show, impeccably curated by the last hipster on Earth, and at one point Jarmusch has his characters wander into a Tangiers nightspot and stand stunned at the sight and sound of Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, singing with eerie sensuality at the intersection of Arab and electronica.
The night has always been a special time for Jarmusch — his main stage, you might say. He has made a film about it (“Night on Earth,” 1991), and it’s the hour when his characters come most naturally into their own. Even the title of “Only Lovers Left Alive” evokes that 4 a.m. feeling of being among the woken few, the ones who aren’t sleeping their lives away. Above all, the movie sustains a vibe of vast and weary sympathy for its devils as they live unseen beside us and, very occasionally, upon us. To quote an expert in such matters: Children of the night — what music they make.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.