Thursday, July 11, 2013

Byzantium: the Eternal

          They are an enduring archetype of humanity. Their stories are as variable as our own. For example, once upon a time, there was a fraternal order of vampires who did not allow females to join their never-ending party. They loathed women, calling them witches and bitches, cunts and harlots. 

          What would happen if a woman stole the secret to their transformation? 

          That question is at the heart of Byzantium, an atmospheric and misogynistic story, with a byzantine commentary on vampire culture, and director Neil Jordan’s (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) latest foray into the vampire universe. Vampires are excellent fodder for contemplating humanity, as we wrest with mortality and morality in our limited time on earth. 

           In Mortals and Vampires, I wrote that  the relationship between the two entities is confounded on many levels. For the vampire, “the human is a test in restraint, a nostalgic foundering. For the human, the vampire is overlord . . .  perhaps the ultimate parent.”  There's an element of the rescuer on both sides.

           Such is the case in Byzantium, in which a mother and daughter are on the run from the Pointed Nails Of Justice (PNOJ), the fanboy name of a fraternal order of vampires, who stood in judgment of Clara (Gemma Arterton), the mom, when she stole her way into vampiredom:

“We should not permit her to survive.” 

          She’s not allowed into the boy’s club, but she’s not killed, only banished. Clara learns that immortality is unendurable alone, a lesson all of Anne Rice’s vampires knew well. Her vampires busily set about making families. Louis, that gloomy soul-searcher who narrates Interview With The Vampire, was so lonely he made his own child, Claudia, and thereby broke a cardinal rule in that realm. But Rice’s vampires also learned a few things along the way and sucked their way to riches.

           Clara does pretty much the same thing when she shares the secret of immortality with her human daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who is not unlike Rice’s Louis. He reveals all to a journalist and Eleanor sheds her secrets every chance she gets.  She was born before her mother’s transformation, and goes on the run with her from the PNOJ for two-hundred years.  Mother and daughter live nondescript lives in rundown hovels. Clara pays the rent by giving blowjobs and doing lap dances.  She doesn’t even kill the men she services.

           Wait! Why doesn’t she move to New York and seduce some billionaire with a bad combover in order to control his empire? 

           That would be too Twilighty/True Bloody and I’m always up for the vampire twist and some social history, as in Let the Right One In, a coming-of-age tale in which bullying and pedophilia rule the story, or Thirst in which a vampire priest deals with his nemesis.

           Here are two definitions of Byzantine: of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation as in Byzantine power struggle. And then there’s this from the Urban Dictionary Getting head from a girl, you come in her mouth, pull out, and punch her hard in the face. Tell her to clean herself.  I gave her a Byzantine.

            Both of these definitions apply to Byzantium’s vampires.  A vampire’s behavior can be characterized as devious, but in the second definition who is the vamp, the sucker or the suckee?

            Duh! The vampire is always the sucker.  But why would someone blessed with vampiric powers allow herself to be abused like this? Some things never change: not the orthodoxy of the PNOJ toward females, nor the fact that Clara is a product of her time . . . when human. Prostitution is the only life she’s ever known. Like many of us, she sticks to what she knows.

"Becoming a vampire doesn’t make you smarter." S. Ramos O'Briant

            In the 21st century we haven't eliminated antiquated, even biblical, prejudice against women, or made women less likely to be abused by men, or even less likely to defer to them in body and soul.

           The vampires in Byzantium don’t seem that hungry; they’re not rapacious in the least. Daylight is not a factor and they have no fangs, but grow a gruesome thumbnail which they wield with either anger or pity to puncture an artery in the human. The bloodsucking in the film was usually circumstantial, as when Clara is protecting her daughter, or to fulfill her career plans by eliminating a pimp.

Dante Gabriel RossettiHow They Met Themselves, watercolor, 1864

           Even the holy grail of vampire transformation is not through a blood exchange, but achieved only by entering a Neolithic shrine reputed to have healing powers. Once inside, the human comes face-to-face with their own doppelgänger who announces that it is “the end of time” before stabbing them with the macabre thumbnail and greedily sucking their blood.

           The finale of the film is stupendous.  “Look forward, not back,” Clara tells Eleanor, after saving her from the brotherhood with the help of Darvell, whose character is pivotal for the plot to work.

           “Your instinct is to hunt the powerful and protect the weak,” he says to Clara. “I’d like to try to live that way.”

             The cast was outstanding: Saorise Ronan, brooding and passive-aggressive, dwelling like any 16-year-old on the outcast aspects of her eternal  self. Her human boyfriend, Caleb Landry Jones, looks more vampiricly pale and twisted than the actual vampires. Gemma Arterton, described in the movie as “morbidly sexy” which she certainly is, attacks the role of Mother with all the strength and vicissitude the title deserves. The real winner is the cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, who shot the film in a lush and moody style that seamlessly bound the two eras of this decaying seaside town.

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