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Monday 2 November 2015

A Fresh Cut - A Review of "Byzantium"

Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), are vampires. They have been this way for over 200 years. The pair regularly flees from the pursuit of The Brethren, an all-male secret society of vampires who seek to destroy the two females for violating their code. Eleanor, an eternal teenager, writes accounts of her life and throws the pages into the breeze. Arriving in a coastal town, Clara befriends Noel (Daniel Mays) who has inherited a dilapidated hotel called Byzantium. Clara, who was forced into prostitution when she was mortal, sees an opportunity to run a brothel at the hotel. Meanwhile Eleanor befriends a terminally ill waiter, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who reads her life story…

“Byzantium” is an extremely rare example of original, creative and beautiful filmmaking. The film firmly establishes Neil Jordan as one of my all-time favourite directors. He never seems to fail to deliver with his work, carefully weaving artistry with entertainment without falling into pretentiousness at one end or selling out at the other. However, before I discuss how much I feel this film has been criminally overlooked I feel we need some perspective. 

 If you will forgive the hackney-eyed pun, the vampire genre seems to have been bled dry. Yet, writers and producers still come suckling as eager as ever. TV never seems to take a breath for yet another new popular vampire story to materialize. The ‘90s had the super-heroic “Buffy”, the 2000s had the darkly comedic “True Blood” and the 2010s have “The Strain”, which seems to be savagely dredging the depths of undead clichés and modern mythology like Brian Lumley’s necromancer vampire Boris Dragonsani ripped his secrets from the dead. Meanwhile, the past 20 years of vampire films have seen Marvel comics’ “Blade” show some promise with the first two entries before driving a stake through its filmic heart with the teen-aimed third attempt. There have been a wide range of different angles attempted, with just about every other incarnation being yet another lacklustre stab at Dracula. The problem with overwhelming majority of vampire films and television is that as that despite giving a superficial appearance of being original, they are just slight variations on ideas set down by 20th century cinema.

“Byzantium” creates its own mythology and does so in a manner that echoes the magical folkloric roots of the vampire myth and shows a genuine desire to do something creative. The vampires in dramatist Moira Buffini’s screenplay are not a contagious. In fact, they are part of an elitist and aristocratic brotherhood that jealously protects their gift. This pits them against the stories two renegade female vampire leads, a prostitute and her daughter. Much like Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, the vampires have no fangs or mandibles of any description. Instead they grow a sharp thumbnail, which they use to open veins and arteries of their prey. Death by sunlight is a mainstay in the vast majority of vampire fiction since F.W. Murnau’s 1922 expressionist masterpiece, “Nosferatu”, but it isn’t present here just as it isn’t a part of traditional folklore. The vampires do not shift shape or enlist any sort of familiar or slave.

Vampirism is not presented as a force of evil or even as a curse or disease. Rather, it is a blessing conveyed on single individuals who have access to an enchanted island. This saves us from the old clichés of demons intent on taking over the world, spreading pestilence in their wake, or the Anne Rice inspired self-pitying lonely Goth. 

Sex is present in many forms throughout the story, in the form of relationships as well as prostitution and rape, but the vampire seducer – in either Lord Ruthven or Carmilla moulds - is not present. True, Clara seduces Noel, but this is in line with her skills as a prostitute who understands the desire in many lonely clients to simply be shown kindness rather than any sort of mystical and hypnotic sexual power. This dispenses with a lot of hackneyed plot devices and styles. There are no undertones of xenophobia either, which were firmly established by Bram Stoker’s novel. Rather than having the vampires seen as type of invasive species or disease carrying immigrants, they are mainly part of an exclusive old boys club of noblemen called The Brethren. Even when their snobby and sexist sensitivities are violated by the allowance of a low-born female prostitute being made a vampire, they do not seek to destroy or control Clara just forbid her from being a part of their group. It is only when she breaks one of their rules that they becomes antagonists in the story. Likewise, the film’s most obvious villain is not a vampire but a predatory male who abuses the advantages of his noble birth and military rank to mistreat Clara and Eleanor.

There is no overt or obvious religiosity within “Byzantium”, which has been a part of vampire myth since its earliest incarnations in peasant superstition. Yet, unlike other modern vampire fiction that dispenses with the crosses, holy water and selective sacred scripture in favour of offering a scientific sounding rational for their supernatural bloodsuckers, “Byzantium” feels no need to explain anything. As if to further establish this work’s place as a classy standalone movie within the vampire genre, neither Jordan nor Buffini feel a need to explain any of their vampire lore. This refreshing contrast to virtually anything else presented with the genre, returns the story back to the folk tale essence. It has that type of magical realism accepted in such simple tales that stem from the oral peasant traditions of a time where the existence of the fantastical was an accepted reality in the minds of listener and teller alike. We don’t even get any of the postmodern irony or speculation over vampire rules for the geeks to enjoy.

However, “Byzantium” isn’t completely devoid of influences taken from classic vampire fiction. Since John William Polidori wrote his novella, “The Vampyre: A Tale”, the aristocratic vampire is a common Gothic staple. More recent vampire fiction has used it to establish an elite sect of vampires set above others. We see it in the 1998 adaptation of Marvel Comics’ “Blade”, where the film’s main villain usurps the rule of the vampire elders of the House of Erebus who viewed themselves as purebloods – born vampires – and believed in keeping a low profile. Likewise, The Brethren’s codes are mainly used to keep vampirism a secret from humanity. However, it is interesting that Buffini chose a villainous aristocratic mortal to take on the name Ruthven. Ruthven is the name of the vampire in the title of Polidori’s story and it is most probably based on Lord Byron. The name and the character have appeared in fiction many times since Polidori’s novella as a vampire or as a metaphor until Bram Stoker’s famous bloodsucker overshadowed him. Nevertheless, in stark contrast to what we are used to seeing and reading, the mortal Captain Ruthven is only character who overtly behaves like a predator, has a sexually transmittable disease, controls others through the benefit of his social/professional position and is totally evil.

Vampirism might not be seen as a disease in the story, but three diseases crop up as key plot points in the story that ultimately lead three characters to become vampires. Each of the diseases is very apt in their subtext. These are tuberculosis – which was often mistaken as vampirism when a person died from it, syphilis – of which it has often been speculated Bram Stoker’s vampirism was used as a metaphor in “Dracula” – and leukaemia, the cancerous disease that is mainly seen in the way it affects the blood. Many vampire authors have played with connecting supernatural vampirism to a range of diseases both symbolically and literally.  

The vampire thumbnail slashing method rather than biting might be a reference to Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire”, where we see the vampire, Lestat, using a specially designed thumb ring to do something similar. This brings us onto possible nods to Jordan’s previous work. Buffini must have been aware of these points when she wrote the screenplay, as Jordan is conspicuous by his absence on the film’s writing credits.

1986’s “Mona Lisa” is the most obvious reference. Firstly, Clara’s job as a prostitute and her loyal lifelong protective attachment to another girl echoes the character of Simone. This is particularly evident in the way she manipulates a vulnerable male and is up against a violent shadow institution. Swap the criminal underworld of “Mona Lisa” for the Brethren of vampires in “Byzantium”. Next, the setting in a coastal town and a lot of the action occurring on the peer are also present in “Mona Lisa”.

A bit more a stretch might be the figure of Eleanor being trapped as a teenage vampire for eternity as Claudia was in “Interview with the Vampire”, but Eleanor’s innocence being protected by her mother leading conflicts pushes a more obvious comparison with the adolescent Rosaleen from “The Company of Wolves”. If this is too subtle, check out her blood red hoodie. In “The Company of Wolves”, Rosaleen is playing the role of Red Riding Hood and the hood is symbolic of menstrual blood. She is caught between the protective prison of her patriarchal family and the sexual threat of the predatory he-wolf. Eleanor’s red hoodie is even more on the nose in its vampire symbolism. However, like Rosaleen, Eleanor also finds herself to be at the mercy of different controlling forces and her final decision in the film is also comparable to the one made by her “Company of Wolves” counterpart.

“Byzantium” is an understated Gothic fantasy that brings a refreshing take on the vampire story. The casting features proof that Gemma Arterton is not just a movie star but a genuine actress.  Her handling of Clara demonstrates she can take on roles with more depth than what her recent CV might imply. She doesn’t hog the screen from Irish actress Saoirse Ronan either who deftly handles the treacherous role of being a paranormal teenager. Such castings more often than not offer up some truly irritating characters, but not in this instance. There is an unmistakable Angela Carter brand of feminism running through the story yet a wonderfully simplistic flow at its heart. The film works as a horror in its eeriness, sense of mounting dread and the cruel meanness of unfair controlling elitist systems – both in the mortal and immortal world. Neil Jordan is on good form and the film has alerted to work of Moira Boffini.

"Byzantium" failed to make much of an impact anywhere, although it has received above average reviews. The ideas put forward are not the stuff of vampire franchising. Having said that, the fifth season of "American Horror Story" features Lady Ga Ga playing the part of a head vampire. When a newly made vampire enquires about their lack of fangs, he is told that "we cut". She brandishes a very Lestat-like thumb ring. The obvious reference is "Interview with the Vampire", but it is worth noting that those vampires certainly did have the prominent and retractable canines we first saw surface in the 1950s. Perhaps "Byzantium" is having a slight influence here and there. Let's hope more horror directors will take note of the film's desire to produce something fresh.

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