Thursday, June 06, 2013

First Impressions: Byzantium

Neil Jordan is a consummate storyteller and that trait often is passed to his characters, so that the story we hear is a story within a story. Narrators reading us bedtime tales to fascinate us; be that in the Company of Wolves or Interview with the Vampire or in his literature works such as Mistaken. The 2013 Byzantium follows a similar trope, with the storyteller being the forever sixteen year old vampire Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan).

I went to see this on opening night, though this first impression is delayed, and came away with the sense that this is a film taking from both the modern and the past, familiar and yet something new. For instance there are scenes from the early 19th century that carry exactly the atmosphere as I would want to see in a serious attempt to film Polidori’s the Vampyre. This is not accidental and the clue is within the two characters Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller, Dracula 2001 and Dark Shadows) – whose name is correctly pronounced, in film, as Riven – and Darvell (Sam Riley) who shares the protagonist’s name from Byron’s Fragment of a Novel.

Gemma Arterton as Clara
However I also felt overtones of more modern vampire tales, most noticeably I felt that Eleanor’s scenes and her look owed a debt to the Moth Diaries. There are many more references to vampire works within the film, some blatant such as the scenes played from Dracula: Prince of Darkness. I might have misheard but am sure that vampire Clara (Gemma Arterton) joking calls herself Carmilla. Clara herself is first met in a lap dancing club, such establishments (along with strip joints) being a prime location in many modern vampire films.

tasting blood
As well as borrowing from the heritage of vampire stories/films past, Jordan brings us something new, in the form of the film’s mythology. Strangely this is not explored in depth, but simply is. By this I mean that there are aspects of the film that have their own story, aspects that Jordan reveals enough to tantalise, but whose full story remains to be told. This is not so much frustrating, rather Jordan offers enough to feed into this story but they do beg for a further story of their own.

in the cairn-like structure
These aspects include the turning method. The prospective vampire is given an ornate box that contains a map. The map shows the way to an island (off the coast of Ireland). The passing of the map is almost ritualistic. As such Ruthven has been to the island but is still given the map when he is invited to turn, and perhaps the island is out of reach without the map. The island is almost nothing but a rock jutting out of the sea, the steep climb up the rock leading to a cairn-like structure. The prospective vampire enters the cairn causing birds to flock out (bat-like in their swarm) and meets the thing inside. What is it? We don’t know. It takes the form of the one facing it but perhaps it is an old Celtic God (Darvell suggests that the vampires’ God is older than the Christian God). The prospective vampire is attacked and the waterfalls that cascade down the island turn red. The vampire then emerges, dead and then reborn. What is the full meaning of the ritual? What is its source?

mother and daughter
There is more than a hint of feminism to the story; our two female protagonists are on the run (although Clara hides this fact from Eleanor) from a secret society of male vampires. Females cannot be turned, so when Clara stole the map (and thus stole immortality) she was banished. When she passed the map to her daughter, Eleanor, the turning of the younger woman was seen as an abomination. What is the history of this society? How deep are its claws within our world (we see that they have infiltrated the police)? Again questions that are not to be answered. The claw, however, is an appropriate metaphor as the vampires do not have fangs; rather a singular nail sharpens to be used to penetrate their victim. The society being misogynistic and male based gives a feeling that is almost reminiscent of We Are the Night in reverse. Standard vampire movie tropes like lack of reflection and the inability to withstand the sun are lost but the need for invitation remains. EDIT 28.6.13: The vampires in this are called soucriants, this is a derivative of Soucayant a vampire type from the island of Trinidad. The film takes the spelling from a mention in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. However the name is about all the lore that the film takes from this vampire type. According to Bane the Soucayant appears as an old woman who sleeps all day, however at night it sheds its skin and ventures forth as a ball of light. Victims will have two small bite marks but the Soucayant is compulsive and if you throw seeds for it, at a crossroads, it will stop and count them and (interestingly) be destroyed by the rising sun. As mentioned, in this sunlight is not an issue and the vampires show no form of shape shifting ability – ball of light or otherwise.

If Clara is the hooker with a heart (and a taste for blood), then Eleanor is purity and innocence, her feeds are almost gentile and an act of mercy and she knows nothing of the world that Clara shields her from (of course she understands that Clara is a prostitute, her innocence is with regards the vampire society that hunts them). However things unravel when Eleanor meets a young man named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a teenager whose long battle against leukaemia has made him socially awkward – as well as causing him to be on anti-coagulants (you can guess what will happen there). Their romance is difficult, awkward and everything that other modern vampire films might tell us romance isn’t. It is when she decides to finally reveal her story that the story is able to come to a conclusion.

Unfortunately, the theatre was virtually empty when I went to see the film. There was me and my son and then one couple. The couple walked out halfway through. Clearly the film didn’t have what they were looking for and it is a film that concentrates on character and story, rather than action. As I suggested, the film has a romance, but it is dysfunctional, bumbling and hardly an epic sweeping tale designed to impress tweens. It has vampires but all neo-gothic trappings are thrown to the side (there is, as I have indicated, a Byronesque feel but it is 19th century gothic not our post-modern sub cultural version) and instead we get the decay of an urban seaside town. There is also a hint of David Lynch in some of the shots, especially the Byzantium sign.

The film is not Neil Jordan’s finest film but it is still a very good Neil Jordan movie and such a movie is always welcome. I really did enjoy it and, perhaps surprisingly, so did my son. In my opinion, a film that is definitely worth catching. The imdb page is here.


Simon Dyda said...

You had me at 'Neil Jordan.' :D

Taliesin_ttlg said...


Good to hear from you Simon

Margaret Schalliol said...

Just got a chance to see this On Demand last night, and caught up on your review. Excellent review as always Andy. Love the details on the classic vampire references and how they played into the film.

I would agree with you on most of your points, while not Neil Jordan's best film, it is still a very good one, and a great addition to the genre. I enjoyed the off kilter romance, the feminist storyline, and the lush visuals and Byronic tone of the story.

I only really have a few complaints with the film. The first is that I almost felt like there was so much plot and story to tell that there wasn't the opportunity to just enjoy the simple moments between the characters. Also it was a great story, but I felt a bit cheated by the end in some ways. It turns out that the only real suffering the characters seem to struggle with in terms of their nature is the isolation of it, not the violent nature of it. Finally, while I appreciated the way it incorporated and reflected so much of the genre, I didn't really feel like it offered us much that was new, but overall it is one of the better modern films of the genre.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I agree Margaret, the film didn't really do anything new but more took stock of the genre and used those bits it felt it needed (I did like the connection with the earliest of vampire literature, however).

That said, to have so much story and character (taking your point re the story imperative over character) in a film was refreshing.

Margaret Schalliol said...

That's a fair point, Andy. And now that I am thinking about it, I suppose my real problem was I would have liked to have seen such an epic story developed over a series of films, perhaps. There is quite a lot to it, and I could easily have seen the story progress over the course of another hour or two of telling....or perhaps it was the narration that was bothering me a bit in that. While I understood the purpose of it, the film was strongest when the visuals and action propelled the story and not so much the narration. As I've said though, those complaints are relatively minor, and overall I found it to be quite excellent.