“It is still a fact that the day you are born is the day you are most likely to be murdered.“
There is a lot from Byzantium that sticks out in my mind, but that line is perhaps the strongest. I’m not even certain why, but it feels right when you roll it up with the rest of the bloody meat that makes up that movie. Yeah, write this on the calendar. I found a vampire movie I liked.
Visually, it’s a beautiful movie. It goes from period piece to modern day, and both have their beautiful and disturbingly gritty sides. It’s really two stories running in parallel and explaining each other. In one story, we find out how Eleanor, and before her Clara (her mother) became vampires. This in turn explains what they’re running from in modern times, and their fucked-up family dynamic. And on top of that is Eleanor’s story of breaking free from her mother, reconciling her desire to the tell the truth with the necessity of lying, and falling in love.
Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan were both excellent as Clara and Eleanor respectively. I was already impressed by Ronan in Hanna. Honestly, I felt the only shortcoming of the entire movie was Caleb Landry Jones as Frank, Eleanor’s love interest. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything to that character, let alone any chemistry between him and Eleanor. I also honestly had a hard time understand Jones when he spoke sometimes… and I was just never able to grasp Frank as a character. He just didn’t seem consistent in how he acted from scene to scene, sometimes too young and sometimes much too old and… bleh.
But I really liked all the bits that didn’t involve Frank. It was excellent. And now I’m going to get a bit more in to why I’m still thinking about this movie, so you can consider it spoilery. But the following ramble is exactly why I think this was a good movie. I love it when movies keep me thinking and interested. (As opposed to keep me thinking about how much they pissed me off hello Oblivion.)
There is an amazing amount of meat to this movie, way more than I ever would expect from anything involving vampires, to be honest. The relationship between Eleanor and Clara is very complex, where Clara is very much Eleanor’s mother, but at the same time constantly has to lie that they’re sisters. After 200 years it’s also very apparent that Eleanor wants to fly free, yet when the “Brotherhood” catches up with them, they pull together. Eleanor’s inclinations as a storyteller, her desire to write everything down and share with others even though she knows she shouldn’t, is very powerful. She wants to tell the truth, desperately. And she finally writers her story in full for someone she cares about (Frank)–and then feels betrayed when he shares it with others. All of that feels very true and rich.
But what I found even more interesting was what the movie has to say about the role of women, and prostitution.
Eleanor and Clara are the only two female vampires in this world. The creation of vampires is basically controlled by a shadowy “Brotherhood” who supposedly use their vampiric powers to mete out justice. Clara becomes a vampire when she basically steals the chance to become one from the man who ruined her and sold her into prostitution. And even more interestingly, she says she will protect the weak and feed on the powerful–which is not necessarily in line with the “justice” of the Brotherhood. Then when Clara causes Eleanor to become a vampire, they’re both basically declared anathema and hunted, because it is forbidden for women to create.
Just that right there is very, very interesting.
Clara obviously hasn’t been able to escape her past, even after 200 years. Perhaps because prostitution is the only role she’s ever really known. But that’s how she makes money for her and Eleanor, and then how she finds her victims, the powerful that she will kill in favor of the weak. Yet in the movie, we see her becoming a madam for her own house of prostitution (a run-down hotel called Byzantium), perpetuating the same trade that nearly killed her. And yet, could you make the argument that she’s still protecting her girls to a certain extent, because they’re not out on the street any more? It’s weird and disturbing and ultimately shows Clara’s weakness in being unable to think outside of the box a man once put her in, despite a couple centuries of experience.
I just find the dynamic interesting… Clara has her life stolen from her by a man–a Navy Captain, I want to say. Then she steals her life back by shooting him in the leg and taking his chance to become a vampire. And for that, Clara is effectively ostracized by the Brotherhood, and then punished when she can no longer handle being alone. But the man who destroyed her life originally was only ever brought to justice by her own hand–which once again makes you really wonder about the so-called justice of the Brotherhood.
I have a feeling that Noel (another soldier who tried to warn Clara not to go with the man who ruined her, but then did nothing more to protect her) finally realized just how fucked up all of that is, which is why he helps Clara at the end. Perhaps he’s finally realized he should have been on her side all along.
Clara’s continued prostitution is a giant bone of contention between her and Eleanor as well. I originally wondered if it was going to be a Madonna/Whore thing with daughter and mother in opposing roles. But even that gets turned on its head a little when you find out that Eleanor was raped by the same man that sold Clara into prostitution… who Clara then murders.
Of course, it’s another fun little thing that the older vampire of the Brotherhood who is going to make Noel execute Clara was once a crusader. And the sword he’s planning to use as the instrument of her death is a souvenir of his from the real Byzantium. I also find it interesting, from when you see Clara’s reaction to becoming a vampire as compared to Noel’s, women (or at least Clara) seem to have more fun being vampires than men. I wonder if there’s something to that. I really loved that the two main characters in this movie were women. Though I’m not sure how I feel about the main characters being women and so much focus being on sex/prostitution/revenge for the aforementioned… I think it worked well in the context of this movie, but it’s just a trope that seems to happen an awful lot. (And it’s also a trope that does make sense in the context of the historical period in which Clara and Eleanor were made, I admit.)
And I could just keep going on and on and on about this. This is a rich movie, which I think will require multiple viewings. This is what any kind of speculative fiction movie should be… a what if that makes you think.