Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Byzantium (2012)

Title: Byzantium (2012)

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley

One of Neil Jordan’s most recognized films is Interview with a Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) which to me is not only one of his best films, but also one of the best vampire movies ever made. I personally hold it in my top five because it’s very theatrical, gothic and even epic, the Gone with the Wind of vampire movies. What I enjoyed the most about that film is how it focused on the “eternity” of the vampire and how they deal with it. Decades of existence pass through them, yet how does that affect a vampire? Do they get on each other’s nerves? Do they grow weary of each other? What do you do when you get bored with eternity? What do you do when people start to notice that you don’t age or get sick or die? What do you do when you stay stuck in the same age all your life? Above all this, Interview with a Vampire also delivered on the gore, the blood and fantastic effects. It has all the elements that a good vampire movie should have. On top of this, it presented us with the idea of sympathizing with its creatures, these vampires aren’t completely evil; instead some of them are battling with their vampire nature, they are just trying to make sense of their crazy existence. So of course I was thrilled when I learned that Neil Jordan would be tackling the vampire genre once again with Byzantium.  Was it any good?  

Byzantium focuses on two female vampires; a mother and a daughter team who go by the name of Clara and Eleanor. Clara, the mother, makes her money by double timing it as a prostitute and as an exotic dancer while Eleanor, the daughter, does nothing but mope around, writing poetry which she throws away just as soon as she writes. Young Eleanor is confounded by the fact that she can’t tell anyone that she’s a vampire. She feeds on old people who are on the brink of death, or people who are on their death bed. So anyhow, one thing leads to another and mother and daughter end up on the streets, without a place to live in, so Clara in a desperate move hooks up with a guy who has inherited a hotel called ‘Byzantium’. Can mother and daughter live here for a while? Can they settle with this guy? At the same time, Clara and Eleanor are on the run from a group of vampires who call themselves ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’. They are a brotherhood of vampires who think that Eleanor and Clara are an abomination and should be eliminated. You see this brotherhood, emphasis on the word ‘brother’, have a rule: no sisters allowed. Will they ever catch Eleanor and Clara?

Byzantium is a movie that touches upon themes of feminism. Its main characters are two females, a mother and a daughter, so it is very much about what women and what they endure in a society dominated by men. These are two girls surviving in a world that condemns them for being women. The secret brotherhood of vampires wants them eliminated because women aren’t allowed to be vampires, so right there we’re talking about a society that looks down on women, an ailment that sadly still plagues our modern society. It’s something I personally despise in general, women should be treated as equals, when they are treated as less, well, it’s just another form of bigotry and bigotry and I just don’t get along. I like stories like this one, about women rebelling against the prevailing chauvinism in society. On the other side of the coin this is also a story about a mother who’s having a hard time coping with the fact that her daughter is all grown up and ready to fall in love and take the world on her own. Clara fights with Eleanor because Eleanor falls for a human, same as a real mother would fight with her young daughter for falling in love with a young man. There’s always that difficulty parents go through with letting go when their children grow up, this movie addresses these issues.    

One good thing the film doesn’t do is forget that it’s primarily a vampire film, and a horror film. This is something that Neil Jordan himself mentions in the audio commentary; he wanted to augment the horror elements in the film, which is why the film starts out in a pretty gory fashion; with Clara decapitating some dude with a piano string. Another gory detail, the vampires in this film don’t have fangs; instead they have a nail that grows whenever they need to puncture someone’s jugular to feed. So gore hounds won’t be entirely disappointed. These vampires might be sultry and poetic, but they sure as hell don’t hesitate to slit someone’s throat. It’s interesting to note that this movie can have elements of teenage love, yet doesn’t lose its horror edge.  So in that sense it’s similar to Interview with a Vampire because it weaves visual poetry and a classy aesthetic with gory violence. And speaking of visual poetry, well, this one is filled with beautiful compositions and color. The whole color palette of the film mixes intense colors, with cold blues, it’s an interesting mix. The whole film takes place in this sleepy, rainy coastal town, it makes for creepy, deeply atmospheric visuals.

So yes, I enjoyed Byzantium a lot because it’s a mixed bag of classy aesthetic, sultry visuals an atmospheric setting with just the right amount of gore and blood. It’s a film that plays with very real themes, amongst them feminism and mother-daughter relations. Also, it asks important questions like: do we always have to be like our parents? Even when they don’t realize what unreliable parents they are? Even when they themselves don’t realize what bad examples they are setting? Do we have the right to simply reject them and walk away? Is blood thicker than water? Do differences between parents and siblings have to sever ties completely? Or does love prevail in the end? These are heavy questions that Byzantium both asks and answers. Though nowhere as perfect or complex as Interview with a Vampire was, Byzantium is still a solid vampire film from a seasoned director like Neil Jordan who’s no stranger to horror films, we can’t forget he’s the director behind In the Company of Wolves (1984), a fantasy tinged retelling of little red riding hood; with the horror elements amped up. Highly recommend that one if you haven’t had the chance of checking it out, it’s an interesting mix of horror, surrealism and fantasy. Byzantium shows a thing or two to modern filmmakers. Mainly that a vampire film can be about teenage vampires falling in love…without losing its edge. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


Erich Kuersten said...

Damn right - I loved this movie better than Interview which for me missed a good opportunity by never showing Brad Pitt actually get used to killing people, instead of being sick and self-righteously moralistic all the time, like we wouldn't Identify with him if he gave in to Lestat-style carnality. Nothing like a buzzkill vampire to bring the mood down. But Antonio Banderas made a big splash here, I was swooning and I'm straight as a South Dakota highway. But to me, Gemma ARterton owns this movie. She bleeds it bloody dry

Franco Macabro said...

Agree, and Gemma Arterton is so stunning on this one...I mean, she's stunning on anything, but on this one her character is extra sexy because of her as you mentioned, she completely owns the character, great performance.

True about Pitt on Interview, he was always complaining about his vampirism, in the end though, he finally embraces it.

Thanks for commenting Erich!


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