Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Byzantium (film) review


    Neil Jordan created one of my favorite vampire movies of all time in Interview with a Vampire. He didn't make any sequels, though, and left the genre until now. The heart of what made Neil Jordan's work good, however, was that he focused on what made the vampires tick as opposed to violence. That's very true in Byzantium, which is only the second or third feminist interpretation of the vampire myth I've seen on film.

A warning: this movie is surprisingly violent for such a touching character piece.
    Feminist interpretations of vampirism are nothing new. The use of early authors to make the vampirism as a metaphor for unchecked or quote-unquote *finger wag* deviant sexuality *finger wag* made it a perfect subject for getting points past the censors.

    Vampirism has been used as a way to liberated female sexuality, homosexuality, sex outside of one's ethnicity, and other attitudes which would have never made it to screen otherwise. There's nothing quite like Byzantium, though, which both hurts and helps the film. It's a movie which tries to make a feminist vampire film, largely succeeds, but does have a bunch of areas where it could have had a more coherent core.

    The premise is Clara (Gemma Artertron) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a mother-daughter pair of vampires. Clara works as a stripper and occasional prostitute who uses her job to find sleazy men to kill but has forgotten this was supposed to a way to avenge persecuted women. Eleanor, by contrast, spends her time writing about her experiences with the all-but-stated frustration no one will ever read her words. Both are on the run from other vampires for reasons which gradually get revealed through the course of the movie but are disappointingly revealed to be, "vampires in this world are all men and don't create women because they're sexist douchebags."

    It's weird. I buy the premise vampires can exist and I know society has been horrifically misogynist for most of human history but this stretches my credulity. The fact no vampire has ever wanted to make their lover into one of the undead until Clara is pretty questionable. The fact the vampires have sex and don't seem revolted by it removes the Anne Rice justification for why they wouldn't want an immortal companion. That also requires them to ignore exceptional women for literal millennium. Either way, Clara is not only loathed for being a woman but also the fact she turned her daughter to keep her from dying of syphilis.

Johnny Lee Miller's monstrous Ruthven is the only source of real drama.
    Clara and Eleanor have thus been stuck together for about two-hundred-years and neither of them is particularly happy with the arrangement. Clara dislikes how passive aggressive and self-righteous Eleanor is about her mother being a stripper and prostitute while Eleanor generally dislikes how she's stuck dealing with her mother's bad decisions for all eternity. Yes, she's suffering literal teenage angst as part of her story arc.

    Things come to a head when Clara seduces a hotel manager, Noel (Daniel Mays), who recently lost his mother and takes over his hotel in order to turn it into a mid-level brothel. Eleanor, meanwhile, discovers a dying boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who is sensitive as well as submissive, which attracts her to the possibility of living on her own. This, combined with the vampire misogynists finally tracking them down, results in the two vampiresses finally bringing their long-simmering anger to a head.

    Or it should.
Gemma Arterton is a lovely vampire who wants to make you her slave. I understand Noel's motivation at least.
     The movie's biggest flaw is it never really actually allows its characters to have human emotions. They have vampire emotions of resentment, loneliness, and ennui but not anger or despair. We never really see them get angry or just blow up about their valid reasons for disliking one another. A scene where Eleanor just rips into her mother for making her a monster (ala Louis and Lestat) would have been good. Hell, a scene where Eleanor gets upset about the fact her mother has the mental maturity of a twenty-year-old would have been good. Instead, a lot of their feelings remain subtextual and I think it's to the deterrent of the film.

    Eleanor plays a somewhat Claudia-esque role in that she is stuck as a perpetual teenager, better than a twelve-year-old, but perpetually treated with a veneer of condescension. Clara is content with survivor but Eleanor longs for a life she can never have doing anything other than keeping her mother company. It's a very nuanced relationship between these two and the movie doesn't shy away from its dysfunctional elements. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't really allow the two to air their grievances either so they never find proper closure. Two vampires keeping their true feelings hidden after 200 years might be "realistic" but it's not exactly stirring drama either.

It's rare scenes like this that highlight the beauty of immortality versus the seediness.
    The supporting cast of Byzantium is alright but not great with the three major male characters (all three having love interest roles) supposed to reflect different sides to the male experience. There's the romantic hero (who isn't), the nice guy (who is weak), the sweet boy (who doesn't get much development), and the raging misogynist assholes.

    Darvell (Sam Riley), a wealthy academic and nobleman vampire, is a strong romantic figure but his refusal to step in against the injustices perpetuated against our heroines wears down any sympathy he might have. Darvell isn't a bad guy but life has handed him much and it prevents him from realizing he is unwittingly helping the villains persecute the heroines for stupid-stupid reasons. The fact he's kinda-sorta Clara's love interest is rather annoying as I really would have rather she chop his head off like she does some of the other "evil" vampires.

Clara never quite breaks free of society's chains.
    Noel is pathetic but the most decent man the leads have dealt with in centuries. The fact Noel's unwittingly let in a pair of vampires into his home while trying to help a mother-daughter pair of unfortunates is an irony the movie doesn't miss. He's aware he's being used but, on some level, doesn't care about a woman like Clara is pretending to like him for a time. It's probably the best time of his life. Unfortunately, we don't get to see him realize he's got a bunch of vampires in his house and the horror such a revelation might induce. Instead, he's rather unceremoniously shoved out the door halfway through and that's a shame.

    Teenage waiter Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) is full of unrealized potential which only Eleanor seems to appreciate. I don't actually think there's much to Frank other than he's sick and really nice to Eleanor. This makes sense as he's sixteen and knows he's dying but it would have been nice to get a bit more out of why our heroine wants to make him her companion. Has she never met a sensitive artistic type in the sum of the past two centuries? Maybe it's because schools have never been mixed until the last century but that's stretching it.

Eleanor is the most mature character in this film--to her eternal frustration.
    The closest thing to a central antagonist is Captain Ruthven (Johnny Lee Miller of all people) who is complete monster who rapes and enslaves women, murders rich patrons he befriends in hopes of an inheritance, plus generally behaves more like a vampire than most of the characters in the movie. Weirdly, he never becomes a vampire and thus actually deprives the narrative of a strong central opponent. He's the figure who ruined our heroines' lives but they're denied catharsis by ripping his head off.

    Then there's the Brotherhood, a collection of vampires who refuse to create women because they consider them inferior. They're also snobs. Clara, being both a woman and a former prostitute, offends them doubly so. Frankly, none of them paint a particularly flattering light of the male sex but perhaps that's the point. They only really reach their potential once women are introduced into their lives. Their lack of development hurts the movie and Captain Ruthven being one of them would have provided more menace to the group.

    Ultimately, my biggest problem with Byzantium is that it's not a terribly engaging movie. It has a lot of potential, beautiful cinematography, and great character beats but it never quite "lands" so to speak. I know not all vampire movies are supposed to be fun but the movie has long periods of depression which can weigh upon an audience. There's also a few uncomfortable moments which could have been handled better.

For a feminist movie, Byzantium is really interested in putting its lead in sexy outfits.
    For those sensitive to abuse, watching Clara and Eleanor have to endure so much on their way to freedom can be heartrending. Clara also prefers to appear passive, when she's anything but, which can make her character seem weak. Much of the movie depends on Eleanor presenting a more modern independent woman (even if she is 200 years old) stuck as a perpetual fifteen or sixteen year old.

      Overall, despite its flaws, I enjoyed Byzantium. It's a story of vampirism as a struggle for independence and freedom from society's norms. Eleanor and Clara are wonderful characters with their stories depicted beautifully. The fact it is based around a mother-daughter relationship is rare enough in horror cinema that I think it deserves a point for the novelty alone. While I don't think Byzantium will ever reach the level of fame or appreciation that Interview did, I think it should serve as an inspiration to other vampire movie filmmakers in the future.

7.5/10

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