At The Movies: Byzantium (2012)




2012 • 118 minutes • StudioCanal

Despite the fact that I often use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference between feminist and feminist-minded. The former explicitly embraces feminism; the latter often embraces the ideology but not the term. (And that can be for a variety of reasons—ideally, it’s to separate from problematic expressions of feminism, but more often that not it’s the dread “I’m not a feminist, but…”) The former implies action; the latter implies intent.

But even the best intentions can go wrong. (“I didn’t mean to offend you” is widely recognized as the coward’s apology.) On paper, Byzantium sounds perfect: a Neil Jordan film, adapted from a stage play, about a mother-daughter pair of vampires eking out an existence on the borders of both the mortal world and the male-dominated vampire world, facing their inevitable parting when they return to the seaside town they called home in life. It seems like perfect material for a fantastic creative team, including Gemma Arterton as Clara, the mother, and Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor, the daughter. And yet…

There is a good movie in Byzantium, a distaff, pitch perfect riff on Twilight or Let The Right One In that surfaces from time to time when the film finds its focus. Case in point: anything having to do with Frank, a terminally ill and deeply strange teenage boy fascinated by Eleanor. And Eleanor returns that interest, with interest. Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Frank, and Ronan have a charged, sullen, and passionate chemistry here, almost perfectly matched with their pale eyes, copper hair, and Preraphaelite features. In one scene, Eleanor takes a wounded Frank, who, it turns out, is a hemophiliac, home. When his parents take charge of him and leave her outside, she snatches his bloody rag off of his front porch and almost involuntarily suckles from it. It’s a symbolically loaded moment, perfectly in line with the strange, supernatural, and pubescent musings of Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. (Eleanor sports a red hoodie in several scenes, although I think it’s more to push already much utilized color red in the film.) Had Byzantium been The Company of Wolves’ spiritual successor, translated through the gloss (but not the camp) of Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, I would have been astonished by it and its stark, fascinated approach to Eleanor’s unapologetic and, for her, novel hunger for Frank.

But Byzantium is a distracted film, lurching from arresting visuals (if red is your color of desire, then casting the ferociously ginger Jones is a stroke of genius) to intriguing concepts (a deeply sexist brotherhood of vampires that cast Clara out for daring to take vampirism for herself) without ever digging its claws in deep enough to draw blood. Clara, forced into prostitution in life, turns to it easily time and again in her afterlife to provide for both her and Clara. She even rescues the women who become her prostitutes from worse situations, but the film shies away from dealing directly with Clara’s take on sex work, even as it refuses to sensualize and oversexualize her. (Clara’s first scene in the film features her in sexy lingerie… right before she kills a man, highlighting the sheer strength of her arms.) The Brotherhood, who comes calling eventually, is deeply, virulently sexist, but the film never examines their philosophy in order to garner support for Clara and Eleanor. It’s more of a mood piece than anything else, along the same lines as (but not in the same league as, as very few films are) Only Lovers Left Alive, but out of necessity more than intent.

So, is Byzantium feminist? I would say yes, especially in the context of mainstream films. It’s about two different women and their relationship with each other. Eleanor’s burgeoning sexuality is explored entirely through her own eyes, not Frank’s; Clara is violently protective of other women, both vampire and mortal. But it’s not actively so. The plot climaxes with the Brotherhood cornering Clara and Eleanor, after Eleanor has decided to be honest for once in her life. The two Brothers take Clara out of their car to be executed ceremonially, with Eleanor handcuffed inside the car. Clara doesn’t die, of course, but it’s not because Eleanor has finally repaid the life debt she owes to her mother (both her natural mother and her vampiric one); it’s because one of the Brothers has changed his mind, without any warning. Ultimately, this particular story, out of all the stories in Clara and Eleanor’s lives, is the one where they have little to no agency, utterly at the mercy of this particular masculine hand.

Despite its failures, however, Byzantium is not only worth seeing, but worth talking about. As I’ve said before, I’ll take messy progress over no progress at all. And I’ll direct you to handful_ofdust, who enjoyed the film more than I did and, more importantly, offers some solid analysis of the film.

My roommate rented this DVD from the public library.

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