The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Byzantium

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article Many a moon has passed since I reviewed Byzantium. Over time, my memory of the film has shifted and faded like so much fog. Too late, I realised that my recollections of the film were no more than half-remembered phrases and images: the face of a beautiful but somehow predatory woman, who invites a man to kiss her in celebration of her wickedness with a knowing purr; almost abstract city lights jostling in shallow focus with hazy period scenes, sparsely but beautifully lit with oil lamps; glimpses of the faded grandeur of a dying seaside resort, a funfair that has lost its innocence shot through with seedy neon lights. All that remained of Byzantium for me were these enigmatic traces, powerful but insubstantial.

For this reason, I held off from writing my Alternate Take until I could see the film again. After a second viewing not only is the film fresh in my mind but I find I come to it with new eyes. Looking back on my initial review, my criticisms seem overly harsh, my praise not nearly glowing enough. The film remains as committed to hybridity and contrast as before, but no longer seems incoherent. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but rarely do we have a chance to act on it. The beauty of the Alternate Takes format is that it provides exactly such an opportunity to express changes of heart, revise one’s opinions, and redress mistakes. I make a woeful oversight in my short review of Byzantium, and I seek to correct that here. Not once in my review do I point out that Byzantium is an excellent vampire film; and that is what it most surely is.


As is so often the case with hindsight, the correct course of action is blindingly obvious from this future vantage point. Little did I know that the key to understanding the film was hidden in the midst of my own folly. I praise the film for successfully blending seemingly contradictory genres, and for tying these genres to the personalities of the lead characters. I then criticise the film for its restraint when I desired pleasurable excess. I make this point not long after observing that the film utilises a ‘hardly revolutionary’ vampire trope: that of an opposing pair of vampires. As tradition dictates, one of these characters is restrained, self-loathing even; the other is excessive, sensual, and destructive. How effective then, to have this very opposition played out in the film itself - not just through the hybridity of genre but through the dialectic of restraint/excess inscribed in both narrative and visual style! However much I may wish to revel in the spectacle of Clara’s (Gemma Arterton) extravagant lust for un-life, it is not the point of the film. Just as crucial to its pleasures is an understanding of the masochistic restraint of Eleanor (Saorise Ronan).

It seems I was blinded by the ubiquity of this trope. It is present in Interview with the Vampire (1994) with Louis (Brad Pitt) and Lestat (Tom Cruise), in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) with Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Masters) and indeed between the ensouled Angel and demonic Angelus. True Blood (2008-) (in season one at least) has Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) while the thoroughly enjoyable Kiss of the Damned (2012) has Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) and Mimi (Roxane Mesquida). Kiss of the Damned makes for an interesting double bill with Byzantium. Both films are generically self-aware, with Kiss of the Damned seeming particularly nostalgic for Hammer’s superb Carmilla films (The Vampire Lovers [1970] and Lust for a Vampire[1971]). The films are also similar in not simply using the trope of contrasting vampires but also being about the opposition between restraint and excess. I understand Kiss of the Damned to be about the hypocrisy of restraint, and how masochism is itself an excessive behaviour (for a fuller analysis of the film, see Jose Arroyo’s viewing notes). Byzantium’s project is more diffuse, but to my mind taps in to what is most compelling about vampire fiction.


How do you deal with being immortal? How do you justify a life predicated on death? Clara and Eleanor provide strikingly divergent answers to these questions. Eleanor lives her life trapped in the past. She obsessively writes the story of her life and then casts the pages to the winds only to begin writing the tale over again. Eleanor is burdened with a truth she cannot tell, and one that is not believed even when it is told. Eleanor’s recollections of the past are not a return of the repressed. It cannot be a return, as the past has never gone away. In a number of senses, the past is very much present. This is expressed visually in the overlapping of Eleanor’s past and present experiences of the seaside town to which mother and daughter return, such as her vision of herself on the beach with her schoolmates. Costuming serves to reinforce the connection between Eleanor-past and Eleanor-present, her hood evoking the bonnet of her past self. Ronan’s performance is of a character out of time, with archaic vocabulary and diction, suggesting a character desperately holding on to the ways things were - a trait also expressed in the character’s elaborate cursive hand.


Clara, in contrast, is endlessly adaptable and always contemporary. Arterton’s performance ranges from a phraseology and accent appropriate to contemporary kitchen-sink drama to tones that would not be out of place in a period drama. There are further inflections within Arterton’s period-style performance. Before her transformation, Arterton adopts a performance of ‘the whore’ that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hammer film or rather risqué Dickens adaptation - a performance she reprises to dupe her captors in the modern day, acting subservient before decapitating her foe. After her rebirth however, Arterton grants Clara a crisp, clipped delivery of her lines. This is demonstrated in a scene in which Werner (Thure Lindhart) and Savella (Uri Gavriel) confront Darvel (Sam Riley) and Clara regarding her lack of suitability as a member of the brotherhood. Clara’s declaration that she is ‘a harlot’ and her entreaty to Darvell to vouch for her suggest a delicacy of speech and behaviour contrary to her apparent ‘low birth’. Clara’s adaptability reflects her desire to live always in the moment, caring little for past or future. She does not recall (or chooses not to recall) the town to which she and Eleanor return.

Eleanor’s compulsion to live in the past is equated to an equally overwhelming need to tell the truth. When asked by Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) how long she must have practised the piano to become so good, Eleanor simply tells the truth: 200 years. When asked to recall a true incident from her past, Eleanor tells of how she was visited by her mother even though she believed Clara to be dead. Eleanor is constantly truthful and never believed. Even when her biography is taken seriously it is believed to be lies concocted to disguise some more prosaic but painful truth. In comparison, Clara lies consistently and yet is always taken at her word. It seems that truth and untruth have no inherent value, but are judged instead according to how readily believable they are. Clara’s lying is as equally a product of her way of living as Eleanor’s truthfulness.


By always living in the moment, Clara is constantly recreating herself, with no ties to the past and no plans for the future - she exists in a present untrammelled by concerns for anything outside of itself. Clara’s lying is an essential part of this existence. With no past there is no need for Clara to be tied to a single identity - she is constantly reborn. Just as Sheridan LeFanu's eponymous anti-heroine styles her self variously as Carmillia and Mircalla, Clara also uses the names Camilla and Clare. In both cases, this proclivity towards pseudonyms suggests a desire for a mutable rather than fixed identity. Clara’s lying is actually a form of (self)creation, the very sin she is condemned for by her vampiric brothers. The prohibition against female vampires within the Pointed Nails of Justice clearly stems from a fear of female power, here seen specifically (reductively?) as the power to create. Clara then is truly fearsome, a creator three times over, being earthly mother to Eleanor, then mother to her vampire-self and then overseeing Eleanor’s rebirth.


Eleanor clearly disapproves of Clara's multiple-choice approach to truth and identity. This disapproval is made manifest in a number of ways. When Clara declares her fondness for the new location the pair find themselves in, Eleanor remarks that this is exactly what Clara had said about their last (swiftly abandoned) abode. Clara retorts that their last home was a dump, and that she is glad to be free of it. For Clara, there is no intrinsic difference between the truth (according to Eleanor) and her statement. It is the very act of speaking the words - of performing them - that makes them true. For Clara, it is a case of what is ‘true-at-the-time’, what is ‘true’ in the moment. For Eleanor, on the other hand, it is consistency that matters - more a case of what is ‘true-over-time’. Eleanor takes particular umbrage at her mother telling lies about her. An obsessive autobiographer, Eleanor cannot bear to have her history (and thus identity) perverted. Perhaps Eleanor is privy to the power of Clara's lies, and fears the ease with which they become truth.


While Clara may revel in a joyfully destructive present, Eleanor's pathological commitment to truth is a burden as heavy as eternity. Aware of the full weight of her hundred plus years, Eleanor's constant re-treading of the past smacks of self-flagellation. There is also masochism in in Eleanor's choice of prey. Although Eleanor clearly constructs her choice to feed only on those ready to die as both merciful and moral (her feeding is always couched in religious platitudes), there is surely a certain painful irony in her granting of what she may never have. Perhaps there is also bad faith in Clara's preference of feeding on men that have wronged women, but I cannot help but have more sympathy for her motives. If she appears less immediately noble than Eleanor, at least Clara's motives are fired by a sense of justice, rather than self-hatred. Nevertheless, Clara is more readily recognisable as the ‘bad’ character, certainly from the perspective of traditional morality (criticised by Nietzsche) that values restraint and the denial of natural urge above all else. This is in concordance with other examples of the vampire couple, where the opposition restrained/sensual can easily be mapped onto the hierarchical binary good/bad.


The best vampire fictions complicate and contest these oppositions (and the moral frameworks they represent), and Byzantium is no different. Rather than merely valourising one position over another, Byzantium instead demonstrates both Clara and Eleanor's positions to be inadequate or incomplete ways of being. In its closing segments, the film offers an alternative to both living in the past and living the present: looking to the future. This seems a valid panacea to both Eleanor and Clara's shortcomings. For Eleanor, it replaces guilt with hope, certainty with possibility. For Clara, it allows her to retain her self-creating potentiality, but forces her to consider possible consequences. The act of writing may serve as a useful analogy. It is a move from the fixity of the written (Eleanor), the constructive-destructiveness of the re-written (Clara) to the endless possibilities of the un-written. I find it a touch unfortunate that the go-to cinematic shorthand for ‘looking to the future’ is the successful heterosexual pairing, but this is tempered somewhat by the film also tying this resolution to the bittersweet theme of growing up. The danger now past and mother and daughter reunited, Eleanor is at first distraught that Clara would send her away. Clara's explanation, that it is time for Eleanor to make it on her own, is I feel an appropriate resolution to the parental melodrama aspects of the film. A centuries old teenager, for most of the film Eleanor seeks to define herself in opposition to her mother. It is sadly only when Eleanor is mature enough to realise how much she needs Clara that she is truly able to move on and define herself in her own terms.

In faithfully playing this seemingly tired trope of the opposing vampire pairing, Byzantium reminds us of the often untapped potential of films featuring these seductive creatures of the night. If Byzantium is a film about how to deal with immortality, then it is surely also a film about how to deal with mortality. Similar problems face us all - vampires just have a bit longer to work them out.

This Alternate Take was published on October 29, 2013.

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