Byzantium

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

– “Coventry Carol”, c. 1534

A quavering viola, a solo adagio for piano, a 16th century chorale – the score of Byzantium evokes all the gothic mien befitting a tale of vampirism spanning two centuries. It is the vampirism not of a vicious, mindless sort associated with bloodlust and stakes through the heart, but an oddly human one; centuries of isolation, loneliness, and time. Javier Navarrete’s score features the haunting 16th century “Coventry Carol”, which tells of a mother’s lament for her doomed child, after the Massacre of the Innocents from the Gospel of Matthew. It is an entirely appropriate theme, mirroring the primary story in the film – that of the bond between Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), two vampires who drift through English towns, searching. Despite being mired in loose narrative threads and lack of focus, Byzantium appears to elude most hackneyed tropes of the genre, illuminating a fresh perspective into the realm of the undead.

Neil Jordan is no stranger to the these of vampire angst, previously having directed Interview with the Vampire. Like Interview, Byzantium treads similar ground into introspections on immortality, particularly by Eleanor. Immortality becomes a struggle of duality between freedom and damnation, between empowerment and enslavement. She commits her stories to writing, then throws them to the wind in an act of liberation through secrecy. This secrecy becomes more difficult for her to conceal as the film develops, eventually turning to Frank (Caleb Landry-Jones) in a tentative yet charged relationship, not unlike the vampire-human relationship in Låt den rätte komma in. The act of writing itself becomes a sort of transient record of Eleanor’s struggle, intrinsically tied to her vampirism, but also her adolescence. As Hemingway once noted, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (the irony is noted).

The elements of vampirism throughout the film are tastefully subtle. There are no egregious fangs, sweeping capes, or metamorphoses into winged creatures of the night – a simple, elongated talon is sufficient to exsanguinate their prey. Nor do the women engage in a frenzies killing spree – they appear to abide by their own moral code, preying on the wicked and protecting the weak. For Clara, it is an act of vengeance; for Eleanor, it is an act of mercy. Jordan also makes powerful use of the colour red to draw our attention – Eleanor’s coat, Clara’s dress on the beach, and most viscerally, the waterfalls of blood. This final image in particular becomes a recurring theme of immolation, resurrection, and purification – the transformation from the fragility of a mortal life into an eternal one.

A tangential turn is taken halfway through the film, in which the narrative becomes imbued with feminist discourse. The revelation that vampirism is a chauvinistic brotherhood in which transformation/creation is restricted to men becomes the focus. It is made known that Clara has defied the code, and the remainder of the film, particular the last twenty minutes, become an unfortunate degeneration into a typical car chase scene and confrontation with the brotherhood. Buffini’s script stumbles here, as the abrupt switch in focus from the struggle with vampire immortality to the vengeance-driven finale and the bond between Clara and Eleanor leaves all themes feeling rather incomplete, and their collective emotional impact is diluted.

Nevertheless, the elements of feminism are not completely absent preceding this revelation. Prostitution, rather than being portrayed as an instrument of female subjugation, is rather an instrument of power, wielded willfully and dominantly by Clara in a demonstration of reclaiming her sexuality following its sinister origins concerning a naval office (in a brilliantly vile turn from Jonny Lee Miller). This overt wielding of this power is filtered through the spectrum of the male characters: dismayed at best, and threatened at worst, hearkening back to Victorian attitudes about women and the fear of female sexuality. Indeed, the theme of female vampires acts as a parallel to modern femininity. Instead of shirking from feminine qualities, Clara entirely embodies them and uses them to her advantage. Through this lens, the scene in which Clara is ‘cleansed’ by the waterfall of blood immediately draws comparisons to the act of menstruation. In this sense, the film is really not about vampires at all – it is about women, prosecuted through the ages simply for being women, and now in the modern age, reclaiming femininity. There is a bit of arm-twisting to get there, and Jordan slightly struggles with managing the various themes rather than being allowed to direct them, making the overall impact a bit muddled. Byzantium is nevertheless a welcome addition to a new brand of gothic horror streaked with a gentle vein of humanity.

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