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IFC Films

Deep Cuts: Byzantium

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Oct 29, 2019

The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team FANGRRLS comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. This week we're looking at Byzantium, a melancholy modern Gothic film about a vampire mother and daughter.

When your very existence goes against the natural order, what do you do? Where do you go? Who do you turn to? That’s the main theme of 2012’s Byzantium, which manages to pair Gothic horror against a more contemporary mother/daughter relationship, making the story feel both timeless and ephemeral. Bolstered by its strong cast — the two leads, Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton, illuminate the story like the neon sign of a decaying hotel amid its dreary surroundings — the film offers a modern and feminized twist on the vampire myth.

Director Neil Jordan is no stranger to depicting stories about legendary monsters. Byzantium is his most recent offering of the particular genre, though it was preceded by 2009’s Ondine (about a female selkie who falls in love with a human man) and what is perhaps one of the most famous film adaptations of vampire horror, 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. In fact, there are a few parallels between Interview’s Louis and Byzantium’s Eleanor (Ronan). Both seem almost compelled to narrate their stories to human outsiders. Eleanor is a self-professed truth-teller, and at several points in the film spends time both internally and externally debating whether she should bear the weight of her story in silence or experience the true freedom of being honest with someone else. The real conflict presents itself when she falls in love with a young man, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), but their time together has a limit. He’s eventually revealed to be suffering from leukemia, and while Eleanor has the ability to cure him she isn’t sure she wants to subject Frank to a state living between life and death. 

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Technically, Eleanor isn’t even supposed to be immortal. Through flashback intervals, we learn that the only reason she was changed in the first place was a result of her mother Clara’s (Arterton) intervention. Herself a vampire, Clara chose to seize advantage of an opportunity to live forever — and she did so by snatching it from the grasp of a desperate, abusive man named Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller). It’s a decision that comes back to haunt her later when Ruthven exacts his revenge on an unsuspecting Eleanor in Clara’s absence, brutally raping her and infecting her with syphilis. In order to save her life, Clara resorts to an act of desperation, and in the centuries since the two women have been on the run, living the only way they know how. Their being is an abomination, an affront to the secret brotherhood of vampires who have been inhabiting the shadows. Women are not permitted to become immortal — women of low birth are even more offensive — and the fact that Clara has initiated the creation of a vampire herself, let alone a female one, means that they are a threat to the Brethren’s ways.

In fact, the main reason Byzantium is so thrilling is that it focuses on two women thumbing their noses at the stuffy patriarchy and doing their own thing. Granted, they rarely stray from a certain pattern. Having grown up a prostitute, Clara seems compelled to stick to what she knows and tends to rely on offering sex or stripping for money in order to survive. Eleanor, the perpetual 16-year-old girl, repeatedly writes the story of their lives down on paper before ripping it up and throwing it away. It’s only once she chooses to share it instead — first with Frank, and then with the teachers who inadvertently end up reading it — that she invites real chaos into her and Clara’s life. Once people start talking, those whispers carry all the way back to the Brethren, who have already begun sending their members out in search of the two women who defy tradition.

IFC Films

With a 200-year void in between past and present, Byzantium feels the most visually and tonally jarring when it jumps between the two, but that doesn’t make the narrative any less engaging, and Eleanor’s old-world mode of speaking actually works as a clever way to bridge the gap. As the younger woman narrates her story, she realizes that the eroding cliffs belonging to the seaside town in which she and her mother have now found themselves evoke more than a sense of deja vu. They’ve both been here before, even though Clara dismisses Eleanor’s revelations. But just as this place first offered a rebirth and renewal for both women — best illustrated in the scene where Clara literally bathes in a waterfall of blood after her transformation, baptized anew — it also gives them a second chance to move on, both from the demons of their past and from one another. All daughters must leave their mothers eventually.

 

Predictably, the third act of the film is where much of the drama happens. Eleanor gives up on fighting her inner conflict. Meanwhile, the trail of conspicuous bodies Clara has left in their wake has managed to lead the Brethren right to them. The twist, however, is that the two women are not as alone as they think they are, and an unexpected ally manages to change their fate at the last minute. Byzantium’s resolution does feel a bit rushed in comparison to the pace of the rest of the movie, but it also may be one of the few vampire films that actually alludes to a hopeful future for its characters. They might be at odds with the rest of the world, but they can always lean on one another. Typically, immortality tends to go hand in hand with solitude, but Jordan’s film presents the possibility that even those who live in the shadows can still find companionship.

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