Vampire movies are about sex. This has become practically a rule, and that’s totally okay. I have no problem with Taylor Lautner winning Best Shirtless Performance at the MTV Movie Awards. But if you’re going to make a movie with irrepressibly erotic vampires, you should figure out why you’re doing it. The problem with Neil Jordan’s Byzantium is that it so drips with sex it loses purpose. It has elements of every recent incarnation of the genre, moments of horror and action and myth-making, but in the end it’s more of a bland vampiric soup than anything with real bite.
Saoirse Ronan is Eleanor, two centuries old but trapped forever in her teenage years. She feeds only on those ready to die, which typically means the silent and fading elderly. She writes of her life but then tears up the pages, knowing that no one can ever know who she truly is. This secrecy is under the rule of Clara (Gemma Arterton), a woman the world knows as her sister but who we can easily see is her mother. “My savior, my burden, my muse,” Eleanor writers of Clara, whose torrential personality and dangerous profession only exacerbate their tense relationship.
Clara begins the film as a stripper-cum-prostitute, who is discovered in London by a mysterious and hostile blonde vampire from her past (an underused Thure Lindhardt). This confrontation sends Eleanor and her mother on the run, to a seaside town where they once lived. Clara seduces a local and sets up an impromptu brothel in an old boarding house called Byzantium. Eleanor spends her time wandering the boardwalk and eventually goes to school, the same she attended 200 years before. Along the way she meets a sickly young man named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who can’t help but falling in love with her. Complications, mostly the usual ones, ensue.
Frank, incidentally, is perhaps the most conscious visual reference to Jordan’s last foray into the genre, 1994’s Interview with the Vampire. Landry Jones sports long, blonde hair to go with his frail physique. He may be the mere mortal of Byzantium, but he looks more like a vampire than any of the actual bloodsuckers. It may be Jordan telling us he wants to take this genre in a different direction, nodding to Anne Rice but heading somewhere else. If only he knew exactly where that was, Byzantium might be a different film.
The basic mythology of this particular twist on the vampire legend is an interesting one. Adapted by Moira Buffini from her play of the same name, the script is particularly interested in what I’d consider the most thematically intriguing part of being a vampire: the immortality. Eleanor speaks of time and the pain of being alone, watching the world shift before her eyes. Her back story is 19th century, full of the brutality of sailors and the cavalier misogyny of English naval officers. Jonny Lee Miller hams it up a bit as the lecherous and somewhat leprous villain, but it works.
In keeping with the coastal theme, the vampiric origin story involves a rocky and deserted island with a penchant for volcanic histrionics. It’s meant to be the spiritual heart of the film, and in a way it is. Its shrieking seagulls and rivers of blood are good spectacle. Yet there’s a disconnect between the high drama of the island and the rough day to day of Eleanor and Clara, however gussied up it may be. Byzantium is less about its mythology, its themes of immortality, and its brief forays into action and suspense than it is about the rote sexuality of its characters.
I should stress that in no way is this a problem on paper. Vampires are a deeply sexualized legend, and always have been. It has worked before, and it worked for Jordan in 1994. Yet here it gets lost, somewhere between the obsession with Clara’s prostitution and the film’s odd gender politics. The major cause for disagreement between Eleanor and her mother is over how to support themselves. Clara’s insistence on selling her body tries to be at once sympathetic and empowering, but is mostly just overwrought. As the film moves forward, Jordan’s portrayal of her sexuality doesn’t get any more complex.
Arterton does the best she can with the material, but in the end the film doesn’t seem to know whether she’s the owner of her sexuality or its victim. Meanwhile, Buffini’s unexpected manipulation of the history of vampires to make a point about women’s rights bears more in common with the First Wave Feminism of Universal Suffrage than anything evocative in the 21st century. It’s not problematic so much as it is confusing.
In the end, the whole film seems primarily unsure of itself even as it tries to set up a sequel. There are scattered moments of power, but they can’t make up for the lack of direction. By the end we’re all a little bit stranded.
The Upside: Watching Saorise Ronan as a wise and merciful vampire is a treat, and the film’s flashback segments are quite impressively designed.
The Downside: It gets lost amid its own ideas, unsure exactly what kind of vampire movie it wants to be.
On the Side: Ronan does her own stunts! Well, she plays the piano herself. We can only hope Wes Anderson takes advantage of that in The Grand Budapest Hotel.