Byzantium (2012)

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Most movies, sadly, are either too gratuitous or not gratuitous enough. Why does it have to be so hard to strike the right balance?

A mother/daughter pair of 200-year-old vampires are leading a secret life, in perpetual flight from a brotherhood of male vampires. The mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), started her adult life by being forced into prostitution, and has basically continued to make a living by that seedy trade ever since. Her eternally 16-year-old daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), on the other hand, was brought up in a convent-like girls’ school, paid for by her mother’s income, so that she would escape a similar life. Now, however, they still live like mother and daughter, almost diametrically opposed to each other in attitude, as Eleanor remains the product of the girls’ school: chaste, pure and (somewhat overly) devoted to truth. The two women’s different priorities are increasingly driving a wedge between them. One wonders how they lasted this long.

Before seeing Neil Jordan’s vampire movie Byzantium, one wonders why the movie is titled as it is. There are two reasons for it in the movie (one is fine, the other seems an unlikely co-occurrence), but you could be forgiven for thinking that it is because the plot is somewhat byzantine. The story is certainly not overly complex, but it has strange elements here and there, and naturally, as is all the rage these days, it is told in a fitful and non-linear way, which contributes quite an amount of unnecessary confusion. On analysing the plot structure, what emerges is a symbolical tale about how women, after a historical era of being oppressed by men who felt that only they should have the power to create, slowly reappropriate their creative power. The two women in the movie correspond to two often-seen female archetypes, namely that of the slut/prostitute on the one side, and the honourable, virtuous and virginal woman on the other. These are deliberate clichés to illustrate the popular types of women in the male imagination, and they are both rebelling against their respective type.

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This is all good and admirable, but in order to maintain this symbolism a lot of the narrative flow and plot logic suffers. The movie’s biggest failure is that it is not sexy and pompous enough. It wants too much to be a respectable and mainstream art movie. The director does not seem to realise that he could easily have preserved the same symbolism, and probably made it much clearer, in a more traditionalist genre movie.

But, instead of embracing its B-movie tradition by being a bit melodramatic, lofty and pretentious, which is part of the charm and appeal of B-movies – and perhaps nowhere more so than in the vampire genre! – Byzantium approaches its subject matter with tiresome seriousness and realism, stubbornly determined to be an A-movie. It would have been really enjoyable only in a more luridly gothic or otherwise glaringly stylish form which did not take itself so seriously. Because that’s how disbelief is suspended! Neil Jordan even knows this very well from his own quite successful Interview With the Vampire (1994). However, as a result of resisting the usual trappings of the vampire genre, the set-up in Byzantium has oodles of credibility problems.

A mother and daughter with sharply opposing world-views have continued to play house for two centuries? With the daughter apparently still exhibiting a 16-year-old mentality and irresponsibly trying to tell every stranger she meets the dangerous truth, and then having to be told off by her mother? It seems completely ludicrous. Or is it a particular point that these vampires stay in the same state of mind as when they were created? No, it cannot be, since both women are rebelling (in different ways) against their situations. So the basic conceit of their being together does not work well logically, except for on the symbol level, where they are undoubtedly supposed to be two sides of the same coin, namely two aspects of the female gender as a whole.

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The movie’s artistic substance is progressive and likable, but in terms of effective storytelling and entertainment value, the ”message level” does not mesh well with the ”accessible entertainment level” at all. I may feel differently the next time I watch it, armed with my after-the-fact arm-chair analysis (and then I may raise my rating of it), but at this time I am not impressed, and feel that Byzantium bit off more than it could chew. It was too bleak a drama where it should have been a lot lustier and a lot less self-important. I have no doubt that Jordan felt that IF the movie was actually sexy, it would compromise and defeat the integrity of the feminist message, but that’s nothing but a bourgeois concern. Sexual empowerment is also an important feature of women’s lib.

Of course, Gemma Arterton is an insanely sexy lady, but her character here is too fierce, angry and exploited to convey any real eroticism. As quite a fan of the two actresses, I have to say it is depressing and dull to have astonishingly attractive Arterton and Ronan in a movie where they are essentially tragic wretches whose reality is a constant fight against oppression and objectification. This may even be a large part of illustrating the movie’s whole point, but it ends up being too artsy and gender-political to be satisfying on an immediate and pop-cultural level, which a vampire movie, of all things, should bloody well be.

Go watch Sucker Punch instead, which has a nearly identical message (though most critics do not seem to have discovered it), and is appropriately steeped in glorious pop culture – without even being a vampire movie. Glitz and slickness go a long way in conveying a story effectively. Neil Jordan should know this from his quite excellent ”Borgia” TV series. Byzantium feels more like the anti-Borgia, and it really should have been a lot better.

Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Daniel Mays, Jonny Lee Miller, Thure Lindhardt, Sam Riley and others.
Runtime: 118 min.
Country: UK / USA / Ireland

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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