We’re pleased to share another guest blog by the ever popular Damien Shalley. He introduces himself here:
Damien Shalley sometimes confuses armadillos with peccadilloes, usually when he’s had too much Tempranillo. He wishes that Kanye West would just come out of his shell a little. If he was a rapper, he’d call himself “Daddy Cruel”. He would like to thank whoever invented yoga pants. He would not like to thank whoever invented Pimento Loaf. He knows who the real Slim Shady is, but he’ll never tell.
If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Bear Skin, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome to “Byzantium”
by Damien Shalley
Byzantium was an ancient city founded by the Greeks, the origins of which are shrouded in legend. A wealthy city at the nexus of Asian-European trade, it was conquered by the Romans (who called it Constantinople), and conquered again by the Ottoman Turks, who made it the capital of their empire. Today it is called Istanbul and vestiges of its’ ancient power and forgotten glories remain. It is a city that has existed throughout modernity; a city that has seen prosperity, a city that has seen blood and violence, a city that has seen the vicissitudes of existence.
Perhaps that is why Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”, “Interview with the Vampire”, “Ondine”) chose Byzantium as the name of his 2012 vampire film, starring the beguiling Gemma Arterton and talented Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan. Jordan examines the time-worn, desolate existence of a mother and daughter vampire duo living part of their hope-free eternity at the Byzantium guesthouse in a desolate English seaside town. The central theme of this film is emptiness – the infinite emptiness resulting from perpetual exclusion from salvation. Jordan shows us convincingly – and in gloriously lush style – that the true fate of a vampire is isolation from everything that is good. This isn’t the famous Ms. Meyer’s “Twighlight”. (Thankfully).
Jordan’s film has been described as a meditation on family, life, love and death. It is all of those things and more, wrapped up in stylish visuals and a well-known concept with appeal to audiences. Gemma Arterton plays Clara, a mysterious, hardworking lady of the evening (literally). She is on the lamb, running from mysterious men whose role in the proceedings becomes clearer as the film progresses. Clara is provided with information by one of her clients about a run-down old seaside guesthouse called the “Byzantium” which she decides might be a safe (and productive) home base. Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, Clara’s daughter, a particularly “unsweet” 16 year old with a somewhat philosophical bent, who enrols in a local school after moving to her new coastal home, and who mortifies her teachers with a writing assignment detailing her centuries of existence and her need to prey on unsuspecting souls to survive. Together, the two women work in tandem to defeat (or temporarily deny) the goal of their pursuers. As the film progresses, we are witness to flashbacks which flesh out the story and offer insight into the two women and their current predicament at the “guesthouse at the end of the world”.
There is a mournful aspect to these women – their relationship features many familiar mother-daughter dynamics, and Clara genuinely loves Eleanor – but ultimately they are both doomed. Eleanor has a thoughtful disposition and dispatches her victims with a sense of melancholy. She also feels a certain disdain for her mother’s more “scattershot” approach to predation. The more experienced Clara has weathered centuries of interactions with humanity and is much less conscientious about her victims. The two women are inseparable though, due to their family bond and their condition. Love knows no boundaries, even for the undead.
The screenplay for “Byzantium” was written by Moira Buffini, adapting her successful play “A Vampire Story” for movie audiences. Her work examines the lonely routine of the vampire and the very un-“Twilight” concept that there is nothing glamorous about vampirism. Director Jordan takes this concept further by examining what being a vampire actually means. Jordan’s vampires are soulless entities relegated to a tiresome earthly existence of perpetual feeding on the gullible. They are creatures who can experience no true satisfaction despite living through the ages and knowing all that this world contains. They are ultimately condemned to an eternity excluded from God, and what’s worse, they know this all too well. Their efforts on this mortal coil will all amount to nothing, and at the end of time salvation will elude them. In the meantime, they must go through the motions in order to live through another night. They will experience both good and bad in all its forms, build existences only to see them crumble, enjoy wealth and power then watch it disappear and be constantly reminded of the perpetual “veil of tears” that summarises earthly existence. Just like the ancient city Byzantium.
Some critics have suggested that his film is not particularly insightful and is ultimately nothing more than a reworking of a story we’ve seen many times before, presented in a visually beautiful way. “Byzantium” also pitches to commercial audiences by offering a quotient of exploitable elements; blood, beauty and seductive glamour. (Well, this is still a vampire movie after all). Jordan’s concept of an empty eternity for the soulless nightstalkers he showcases has been described as somewhat superficial. More cynical observers have suggested that the beauty of the cast and the elegant photography might prevent some viewers from acknowledging that aspects of the film are somewhat “half-baked”. It has been noted on more than one occasion by critics that there is a certain lack of substance to the women’s back story and that their tale really doesn’t justify two hours of screen time. The flashbacks to their past are probably the least interesting parts of the film, although they do offer some understanding as to why the women find themselves in their modern day predicament. Has Jordan presented a compelling narrative? Decide for yourself.
Director Jordan has on more than one occasion been accused of dwelling on beauty in a somewhat lascivious manner, “overplaying his hand” as a director, as it were. There might be some validity to this criticism. Whether this is good or bad is up to the individual viewer. He has also been accused of “popularising” serious subject matter – he turned Angela Carter’s screenplay for his early film effort “The Company of Wolves” (a re-examination of the original Charles Perrault “Little Red Riding Hood” tale) into a strangely dream-like B-grade horror movie packed with sensual imagery that confounds critics to this day. Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor character is sometimes presented in “Byzantium” as a red-hooded “innocent” with the innate potential to destroy any “wolves” who may pursue her, and this concept appears to be a “through line” in much of Jordan’s work.
The conundrum that Byzantium” presents is that whilst the glamour aspect of vampirism is downplayed (philosophically, at least), the film is so beautiful to look at that it is entirely possible audiences will miss this very point. Jordan presents creatures that rely on the abuse of all that is good – honesty, integrity, attraction and love – creatures that will happily prey on the undeserving. They exploit the weakest link in order to maintain a godless and ultimately hopeless earthly existence. Jordan offers viewers vampires as soulless creatures – predatory animals – and nasty ones at that. His vampires are beautiful and seductive, though – the eternal trap for the unsuspecting. These kittens have claws.
Jordan has taken an uncommon approach to this type of tale. In modern pop culture, vampires are synonymous with elegance, glamour, stylish living and eternal life. “Byzantium” takes a closer look at the vampire narrative and uncovers a bleakness and hopelessness that is, for the most part overlooked in modern cinema. Warner Herzog’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” went quite a way towards revealing the “truth” behind the vampire concept – his vampire is a creature of pity, condemned to an opportunistic existence preying on strangers, a lonely creature ugly in both appearance and purpose, a creature whose eternal fate has already been sealed and who must now remorselessly destroy the innocent in order to survive until the next sunset. Nobody would suggest that “Byzantium” is even remotely equal to Herzog’s classic, but there is a definite similarity of purpose between the two films. Critic Max Nelson, (“Byzantium”, Film Comment, June 25, 2013) offered this perceptive comment about the movie.
“…in the film’s longest flashback: teenaged Clara escapes the brothel where she’s been forced to live and work, sails to the same island that her daughter will visit a couple hundred years later, and, after making herself immortal, bathes with wild, joyful abandon in a torrential downpour of blood. It’s an unsettling take on the Christian redemption narrative: a victim of the worst possible injustices is washed clean in blood and given eternal life—only, at least at this point, the eternal life in question looks a lot more like Hell than Heaven.”
This seems to summarise director Jordan’s intent in perfect economy of words. For those who appreciate this perspective, Byzantium will be a worthwhile viewing experience.
Neil Jordan Filmography