Friday, 28 February 2014

Byzantium


Film, 2012

Possible Triggers:
Implied rape
Cut wrist (accidental)
Blood and violence

Byzantium is different to most other vampire films. I chose this cover picture because I think that, more than images of gore and blood, it exemplifies what is at the heart of the story. You can see from their body language Clara's toughness and protectiveness for Eleanor, who is both slightly resentful and rebellious, and also vulnerable and childlike still, after so many hundreds of years of existence.

Here we have a tale that has a dark, feminist undercurrent. When Clara, a dying prostitute steals the directions to the source of vampire power and takes immortality into herself, she breaks the rules of the boy's club of vampires, an ancient race made up only of men, who seem to despise women. In the present day, life is hardly better for her, as she is still forced to work as a stripper and prostitute for her living, despite her powers, as she hides from the society that still seek her demise. While the always beautiful Gemma Arterton looks fantastic in skimpy clothes, I felt that there was a point being made here, about the role of women in society, and the flashbacks to her miserable past make this very clear.

Her daughter, Eleanor is an eternal teenager, doomed to an eternity of school and desperate to tell her story to anyone. A lonely creature, an adult in the body of a child, she writes her own story and throws it into the waves, talks to an old dying man and becomes involved with a young man who is, himself, very near death. She is drawn to those on the edge of life, and only takes lives of those who are ready to die, unlike her mother who is, perhaps, in her own eyes, an avenger of women. She is intense and a little frightening to the humans, who think of her merely as a rather disturbed young girl. The scene where she talks to the headmistress, calmly and cooly and says that maybe, when the headmistress is an old woman, she will walk by so she will know that she really is immortal is just a little beautifully chilling. Yet Eleanor still retains a childlike innocence and vulnerability, desperately wanting to be understood, and to break free of her mother, like any young woman.

The two go to stay in a British seaside town, which is very grey and bleak, in an old almost empty guesthouse called Byzantium. The name of the guest house may refer to the William Butler Yeats poem that speaks of 'no country for old men' and being gathered into 'the artifice of eternity'. In the real city of Byzantium, worship of Hecate was also apparently popular, interestingly enough she is a goddess of witchcraft and magic which seems to hint again at the idea of the persecution of powerful women. She was also worshipped for her protection of families, which echoes Clara's overprotective treatment of her daughter.

Eleanor refers to their kind as soucriants/soucouyants, after the Carribean vampire witches. I find this very interesting, as, apart from these two, their kind is made up only of men. Perhaps this was Clara's idea, always wanting to remember their bond and strength of women, the strength she stole from the men.

Jonny Lee Miller is excellent as the thoroughly horrible Ruthven, who tricks the teenage Clara into coming to a brothel with him and then leaves her there after raping her, forcing the innocent young girl onto the path to prostitution, and her eventual doom from disease. Ironically enough, the gift of immortality was in fact intended for him rather than her, and by stealing it, she punishes her attacker with his own long wasting death of syphilis, while taking immortality for herself. Back in this era, she had sent her daughter to a convent school, supporting her with her wages from the brothel, to try and give the child a better life than herself, but those plans are destroyed. She is a fiercely protective mother, perhaps overly so after so many hundred years, now that Eleanor is no longer a child in anything but form.

Although Clara uses her beauty and body to pay the bills or get them a home, when she is with her daughter, it is clear her only real affection is for her, and she feels nothing in regards to the men. Indeed, her Regency past is clearly a miserable one, most notably her illness, and her desperate decision to keep her baby after she is told to kill it. In the modern day, she attempts to protect her child by telling her nothing of those who want to kill them.

Clara tries to rescue girls in her own, rather misguided way, killing a dangerous pimp, bringing drug addicted street walkers back to the old hotel to work there under her eye in relative safety. It is clear she sees herself in these girls. It is sad that, with all her immortal life and strength, she has never managed to escape her life as a prostitute. Unlike the vampires in many other stories, she has not become rich or powerful, but still lives a poor and miserable life on the run.

The settings and costumes were well done. I enjoyed seeing the town in two different eras, and the mix of the Regency era, which I love, with the present day. Gemma Arterton really suited Regency style, and would most likely have been considered quite pretty in that era, having the kind of busty figure that was popular back then, and, despite the horribleness of his character, it is impossible to deny after four movies/series set in the Regency era (Byzantium, Byron, Emma and Mansfield Park - he was actually in two different versions of this) that Jonny Lee Miller practially belongs in the Regency era.

This is definitely a movie that offers more than the usual campy or gory delights of the modern vampire movies (although there is not a lack of blood or action in Byzantium). It is a movie that makes us question the nature of our own society. We have come so far with technology yet we still live in a world where women are victimised and marginalised. Are the street prostitutes of the modern day seaside down so different from those back in the past? It is also shows a rare strong family bond between two of the characters, a protective mother and her daughter who wants to break free. This movie has really stayed with me and I recommend it completely!

2 comments:

  1. I liked this movie more than I thought I would, considering that Arterton is made to flaunt her stuff in every scene. Yet it didn't feel (too) gratuitous, since it was very much part of the story.

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  2. I tried watching this a few weeks ago and turned it off about 15 minutes in. After you and Ms. Misantropia's reviews, I finished watching it yesterday and it was decent.

    I have to be selective about my choices on Netflix because I've only got another 50 or so days left at the rental, and then we won't have it anymore. At the time I started watching Byzantium, finishing Downton Abbey seemed much more important! But now I'm choked because Netflix only had two season's worth and I'm still two and a half behind! :)

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