Byzantium Doesn’t Have Much Under the Hood

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I’ve never been quite sure how I feel about Neil Jordan as a director. Sure, he’s made movies I like and I can appreciate him as a monumentally important figure in the landscape of Irish film; but he almost feels like an anti-auteur at times for how little a sense I get of who he actually is, as represented through his work. For one thing, he seems almost superhumanly mutable at times stepping between modes like dreamlike fairytale (The Company of Wolves), contemporary revenge thriller (The Brave One), political myth-making ( Michael Collins) and vampire bromance  (Interview with the Vampire). It’s almost like he’s the directorial equivalent of Mega Man or something.

So when I went in to Byzantium, his second foray into vampire town, it was with a deep need to pull something out of the film and reach some deeper understanding of Jordan as a film maker or at least hit on some juicy subtext like I did way back with Ondine.

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Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton star as Eleanor and Clara, a mother-daughter vampire duo who settle in a small coastal town after being on the run from a mysterious secret society for 200 years. Arterton’s Clara is a dyed in the wool vampire femme fatale, posing as a hooker to prey on unsuspecting Johns and possessing a seemingly limitless supply of sheer tops. The much more altruistic Eleanor prefers to prey on the elderly, giving them release in their twilight years, like what people still think Obamacare is in the form of a pasty redhead in a hoodie.

The two are polar opposites. While Clara takes to lying like Neil Jordan to a scenic shot of a craggy coastline, Eleanor is compulsively honest. She writes her story periodically before throwing the pages to the wind and takes less care concealing her identity than Ben Affleck’s Daredevil. As the film unfolds, we learn more about the circumstances of their creation. Clara opens a brothel in an old bording home and Eleanor strikes up a nervous romance with a local hemophiliac (She can pick ’em, that one.) In the meantime, members of the mysterious order of vampires close in.

What really strikes me as interesting is that the film implies a rich and interesting mythology behind this version of the vampire myth. After all, no vampire movie can just play it old school these days. Vampires can only be created by taking some poor sod to a stone hut on a coastal island to receive the gift from “the nameless saint”, a process which culminates with the surrounding waterfalls and streams running bright red with blood, like someone is recreating the woodchipper scene from Fargo about eighty times just over the hill. It’s a striking image, if a bit silly.

The vampire order itself is likewise implied to be some far-reaching, possibly altruistic organization, describing themselves as “the pointed nails of justice” which even the characters of the film don’t seem to know the exact meaning. Somewhere, someone knows what all this means but the film treats it as a secondary concern, if at all, putting all the focus on Clara and Eleanor’s relationship.

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The easiest interpretation of the film is that it’s all a feminist allegory for the oppression of women. The vampire order is hunting Eleanor and Clara because women vampires aren’t allowed to exist, much less propagate themselves as Clara did. The two endured countless assaults in their early lives; Clara was sold to a brothel and Eleanor was raised in an orphanage. After Clara be-vamped herself, she spirited off to vampire-creation island, taking Eleanor with her.

To call the film a feminist empowerment piece, like The Brave One, seems too reductive, especially since Clara and Eleanor are continually painted as lost souls; Eleanor desperate for human contact and Clara having long since numbed herself to it. Neither of them are particularly empowered figures, just two especially broken people who’ve been through some especially bad times. In that sense, I suppose the film is humanist if nothing else.

The film keeps flirting with subtexts or ideas that could have been the drive for the whole movie. Like how Eleanor’s the really dangerous one because of her desperate need to tell her story rather than Clara, who puts a button on things by quipping “knowing can be dangerous” before murdering a nosy teacher who learned too much. From this angle, Byzantium could be seen as a statement on the dark side of human connectivity but it feels anemic and barely-there, not explored in any real depth.

I keep searching, perhaps in vain, for some overreaching subtext. Some thread that leads me like a trail of Reese’s Pieces to what this film is really trying to say. More often than not, these trails don’t lead me to any greater understanding. Come to think of it, it’s very possible that I may have just expected too much of Jordan. I went in a relatively shallow film about two broken beings struggling for their place, hoping to find something deeper and more meaningful but Byzantium came up short.

Taken on the surface, Byzantium is a serviceable enough vampire yarn well acted by both Ronan and Arterton and with enough flair in its mythology to keep it intriguing in the bottomless sea of revisionist vampire stories we all seem to be drowning in these days.

 

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