Plot: vampire recounts her life, losses and regrets over the centuries.
Have you ever wondered what and how a Jean Rollin vampire film would have looked like on a modest budget (at least in Hollywood terms) of $8 million? Byzantium offers a glimpse into what such possiblity might look like. This was absolutely the last thing you’d expect of Neil Jordan after nearly twenty years of putting distance between himself and the poisoned gift that was Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994). Together with Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) it was some of the best gothic horror that Hollywood had to offer. While it did not usher in a new decade of gothic horror revivalism it was able to stand on its own merits and deserved every accolade/criticism bestowed on it. Byzantium does the exact opposite by examining how vampires would acclimate to the capitalistic pressures of modern urban metropolitan life and the hardships they face as women.
Neil Jordan is a master technician and his features (regardless of subject) are always exquisitely photographed and oozing with style. Jordan, after all, debuted with the fantasy horror The Company of Wolves (1984) or an adaptation of Angela Carter's gothic fairytale deconstruction that used werewolves, Little Red Riding Hood, and psychology as a metaphor for puberty and a young girl’s sexual awakening. It was truly hypnotic and spellbinding and let you know exactly what it was from the very start. After leaving the fantasy and horror genres behind Jordan specialized in biographical – and social dramas, usually concerning the Troubles of Northern Ireland and the exploration of human sexuality – often combining the two in prestige pictures as The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996). Ten years after The Company of Wolves (1984) Jordan got his big break in Hollywood with the Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) or his calling card (and most enduring work) in the eyes of pulp fans the world over and a modern interpretation of the mopey, sadboi vampire ur-character. On television he was behind the historical drama series The Borgias (2011-2013). Byzantium was the first time in nearly twenty years that Jordan returned to his old stomping ground of the vampire. It’s not hard to see why he would be attracted to Moira Buffini’s play A Vampire Story and her screenplay adaptation of it as it elegantly blended various elements of history, folklore, feminist socio-political ideas (the trials, tribulations, and smalll-minded prejudices women of all walks of life face in patriarchal male-led societies; the bourgeoisie using the downtrodden and the disenfranchised for their own material gain) and universal themes as friendship, unity, and overcoming hardship. Headlining are the multiple award-winning duo of Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan with Kate Ashfield from Shaun Of the Dead (2004) in a supporting role.
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. The only way to tell her story is to write it down and throw the pages to the wind. Old man Robert Fowlds (Barry Cassin) has been collecting the discarded pages and has connected the dots. Meanwhile, Clara (Gemma Arterton) has been working in a stripclub and after a lapdance turns violent a figure from her past materializes. Werner (Thure Lindhardt) chases her across the city. As Clara lures Werner to her apartment and kills him Eleanor has finished exsanguinating old man Robert. Realizing the gravity of their situation Clara and Eleanor set the apartment on fire and flee the city. The daughters of darkness commute to a nearby coastal town. There Ella meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) just as Clara meets lovelorn Noel (Daniel Mays). As the two women get comfortable in their new living situation figures from Clara’s past come haunting them. Head of the Brethren Savella (Uri Gavriel) does not suffer anyone crossing the laws he has laid out to ensure their survival. He dispatches Darvell (Sam Riley) and Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) to exterminate them for their transgressions…
Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) came with all pomp and excess that harkened back to the best Italian, Spanish, and Filipino vampire films of the most ancient days. If the stark and minimalist look of this British-Irish fantasy thriller (they apparently are still deadly afraid of scaring audiences by calling this a horror) is anything to go by you’d almost believe that Jordan took an interest in French fringe filmmaker Jean Rollin and his late 1960s/early 1970s erotic vampire horror fantastiques and isolated moments from Jess Franco vampire romps. While the atmosphere is meditative, introspective, wistful, and at all times melancholic Byzantium starts off in a seedy stripclub where voluptuous Arterton is giving a client a sultry lapdance. It doesn’t get more Franco than that. There are endless shots of idyllic beaches, there are opposing sects like in Fascination (1979) and at one point Ella is baptized in blood very much in the way of Grapes Of Death (1978). For the Francophiles these vampires don’t sprout fangs and can withstand daylight, during the beach kill Clara does the Jesus Christ pose just like the chicken coop/fence victim in Female Vampire (1973) and Clara too ends up bathing in (a waterfall of) blood like Lina Romay in said movie and Soledad Miranda in Vampyros Lesbos (1970) before her. Like in any good Rollin flick the vampires are a pair of young girls, although this could just as easily could be seen as a genderswapped take on the Lestat-Louis pairing of Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) with Frank in the Claudia role. Here Eleanor is somewhere between Claudia and Lestat in that she’s cultured, articulate, a misanthrope, and a philosopher whereas Clara is Louis-by-way-of-Lestat in that she’s guilt-ridden, sexually aggressive and impulsively self-destructive. She too has a habit of torching her domiciles, there’s piano playing and Jordan continues his Little Red Riding Hood motif with Ronan. Thematically this feels like a fusion of the razorsharp socio-political commentary from Baby Blood (1990) with about half the plot of The Living Dead Girl (1982).
Byzantium too singularly concerns itself with beautiful people living an immortally condemned life of hedonism and debauchery and effortlessly fails to be sexy at any point. Early on Clara is described as, “morbidly sexy” as she suggestively wiggles her bum in a baby doll during a lapdance. Despite said scene being set in a stripclub (and commenting on the plight and exploitation of sexworkers and the inherent perils of prostitution) it’s also repelled by the naked female form. Shortly thereafter Ella is called, “an aberration” for whatever reason. In typical Hollywood fashion Byzantium is deadly afraid of nudity in any form. To its credit director of photography Sean Bobbitt beautifully captures the pastoral British-Irish environs, beaches and lush marshes as well as the filth-ridden, neon-drenched streets of modern metropolitan hubs rife with urban decay – be they societal, systemic, or infrastructural. Just like Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994) had faint but pronounced gay undertones Byzantium has a clear and defined undercurrent of feminist/progressive politics and disseminates an aggrieved polemic on generational poverty and disenfranchisement, entrenched gender roles in paternalistic societies, the limited agency and career possibilities of women without degrees or menial labor skills, and how apparently their only option for upward social mobility is preying upon (in this case very literally) desperately lonely (and sexually deprived) men of any age, but preferably their own. The score from Javier Navarrete is a bit stock sounding whenever it gets electronic and will sometimes wander into standard horror territory. Had it only consisted of the serene piano melodies then perhaps it would have been stronger. While Navarrete is far from bad we’d be interested in what Simon Boswell could have done with this.
It largely eludes us as to why Byzantium isn’t as beloved or well remembered as Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (1994). And just like twenty years earlier Jordan was able to secure two of the biggest British/Irish stars of the day, in this case Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. Arterton and Ronan are versatile actresses and more than worthy every of the many and different awards they have, individually and collectively, collected over the years. Actresses of this caliber don’t agree to banal projects and especially not lowly horror films (still an uncultured, philistine genre in the eyes of many). This is as much a feminist manifesto as it is a socio-political commentary on modern life with the thinnest veneer of horror. Byzantium is not your average vampire film and more of a meditation on the late-stage capitalist corporate dystopian hellscape and all the societal ills that come with it than a thriller in the traditional sense. What must have drawn Arterton and Ronan to this must have been the interpersonal dynamic between the two women as they navigate the dangers - mortal and otherwise - of modern life. That it just so happens to look like fringe Eurocult films from nearly half a century earlier is a neat bonus. If this can serve as a gateway to some into exploring the prime work of Jean Rollin then Byzantium admirably rose to its task. If not, then you just saw a very good movie.