When you write reviews for a daily newspaper and a movie such as Neil Jordan’s Byzantium comes along, it brings a few problems along with it. The worst of them, by far, is the scant space allowed for the review. Exactly the type of movie that requires length to discuss is granted a measly 15 inches – and might lose two or three of those by the time the piece is fed to the editing buzz saw. All a poor, burdened movie critic can do is offer a brief plot description, a rundown of the cast’s adequacy and inadequacy, and a general statement about what the filmmaker was up to.
I wouldn’t mind taking ju st 15 inches with Byzantium. Not because it’s bad; on the contrary. But Jordan and screenwriter Moira Buffini have so crammed the movie with references to horror films and Gothic literature that it’s difficult tracking them all down, never mind exploring them. Frankly, I’ve found the process almost overwhelming. Although I’d already watched the movies or read the fiction that the movie invokes, I felt compelled to go back to it all for second (or third or fourth) looks. That still left Byzantium itself, shorn of references, to deal with.
So, like I say, 15 inches of copy is beginning to sound like a good idea.
Byzantium begins with Eleanor, who appears to be about 16 but who is actually more than 200, throwing notebook pages from a balcony down to the city street below. The pages contain, she says, a story no one can know, a story which turns out to be the tale of her life as a human and as a vampire. But down on the street, an old tramp grabs a page, reads it, and clearly understands it. The young/old girl and the old man find a basement room in which to talk and the old man speaks of the revenants he heard of as a boy and how he is tired of life and ready to die. Eleanor answers his implicit request by cutting a vein in his arm with her long, sharp thumbnail and drinking her petitioner’s blood until he dies. In doing so she reveals her nature and her character as a vampire who only drinks the blood of those who are tired of life. (In Byzantium, humans can only die from a vampire encounter; they aren’t turned into vampires themselves. In fact, no one can become a vampire who doesn’t desire it.)
When Eleanor talks of a protector named Clara, Jordan cuts to a luridly red strip club where Clara, who seems to be in her mid-twenties but who is also over 200, is performing a lap dance. When her customer breaks a house rule by touching her, she starts beating him up and would clearly kill him but for the intervention of a couple of bouncers. Before she resumes work in the sex industry as a prostitute she’s attacked by a young man in the run-down apartment she shares with Eleanor. After the young man gets Clara under control, he tells her she should never have expected to get away with – well, something we’re not yet told about. But before her visitor can savor his triumph, Clara has cut his head off with a wire garrote.
As the movie goes on – that is, “goes on” in the present and in 1804 – the female pair’s differing attitudes towards men quickly emerges. Clara had become a vampire as a consequence of being forced into prostitution by a brutish snob of an English cavalry officer. She makes men her prey, going the wholesale route by becoming madam of her own brothel where she can feast on the perversions and blood of johns. Eleanor has suffered at men’s hands, but not so dramatically as Clara and is able to take men as they come. She even begins a friendship/romance with a young man with a fatal blood disease whom she meets in a seaside town.
Eleanor and Clara aren’t just hunters, though. They are also the hunted. For reasons that only gradually become clear, they are being hunted by some male vampires who want to extinguish their existence.
This is really all just set-up. Jordan generally favors convoluted plots, which are also hallmarks of Gothic tales. And Byzantium is emphatically Gothic. Aside from the serpentine story, there are ruined houses (in both time frames), pale heroines and heroes, a character devoted to playing romantic music, mysterious shifts of personality, and double-dealing (really triple-dealing). Eleanor’s airy distribution of her pages reflects the beginning of many Gothic tales: A narrator opens the story by relating how he had recently received a manuscript that was full of fantastic and horrible events. If he couldn’t vouch for the honesty and intellect of the man who sent the package to him, he would never believe such things could happen. But he will leave it for the reader to judge the tale’s veracity. Then another narrator appears to tell the story proper.
One of Jordan’s favorite conceits is to confront a character with a dramatic change in some aspect of reality, but not to give that character any extra emotional or intellectual resources he/she needs to deal with it. Eleanor and Clara have lived for two centuries and the passing of time has altered their perceptions of reality. But because they’ve spent those years hiding out, their minds haven’t developed any more than their bodies have. Eleanor, for example, has had the time to practice and master a Beethoven piano sonata. But she writes the same autobiographical snatches over and over. As for Clara, she seems frozen in a moment of vengeance. Aside from the knowledge of the twilight life and the power that comes with that, they have nothing but ordinary human feelings.
In Byzantium, Jordan keeps horror sequences to a minimum. Images are drained of bright color and nearly the only time you see red is when Eleanor or Clara wear a red item of clothing, as if that were the only way Jordan can bring himself to refer to vampirism. Even some blood-drinking scenes are equally discreet; one of Eleanor’s takes place entirely behind opaque glass. And in suspense or horror scenes, when other directors would resort to close-ups and quick cuts, Jordan keeps his camera distant and his cutting almost languorous.
At one point, we learn that Clara also uses the names Claire and, most significantly, Carmilla. Carmilla is the name of a character and novella written by the great Irish Gothic writer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) . Carmilla herself is a beautiful 19-year-old of aristocratic background who ingratiates herself into the prosperous household where another 19-year-old, Laura, lives. Amid currents of naïve friendship, unmistakable lesbian undertones, and an emotionally animated landscape, Carmilla plots her slow but steady seduction of Laura, a seduction that would end with her transformation into a sister vampire.
Despite her bloodsucking, Carmilla is a sexual virgin as is Laura (of course) and three women we understand to be Carmilla’s victims. Although Sheridan Le Fanu doesn’t use the word “virgin” explicitly, it’s implicit in his descriptions. Yet Laura – who is the story’s narrator – describes Carmilla entering certain “states,” when Carmilla stares at her with an openly sexual passion, glances that, in her innocence, Laura doesn’t understand.
It is worth noting that Clara and Carmilla don’t just share the one name. Like Clara, Carmilla has two other names too: the anagrams Mircalla and Millarca.
The connection between the two Carmillas are somewhat obscure, though. There is only one sexual relationship in the movie that could be labeled a seduction – one between Clara and a sad young man – and it is stretching the word’s definition to call it such. The novella is a description of one tale-length seduction.
Jordan makes another reference near the movie’s midpoint when he shows an uninterested Eleanor sitting in front of a television playing the Hammer horror film, Dracula, Prince of Darkness. The movie was made in 1966, between Hammer’s first period, when it was making slightly lurid versions of classic horror tales, and its second, when it went all out on boobs-and-blood. Some of Hammer’s best productions were undertaken around these years and Prince of Darkness gets the studio’s top treatment, with typically ingenious direction from the studio’s busiest director, Terence Fisher.
The excerpted scene is a variation on a turning point from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1896): The destruction of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is an attractive young woman who is the first victim of the vampire count, turning into a vampire herself and feasting on children. As anyone who has read the scene knows, her destruction by a group of men sounds extraordinarily like a rape. The scene in the Hammer film echoes that gory episode, with a female vampire seized by men, roughly held down on a table, and hammered with a suitably phallic stake.
But what point is Jordan trying to make by pointing outside the movie to all these other female vampires? If it’s to tell us that Eleanor and Clara depart from the norm, I think most viewers will have figured that out after about 10 minutes. If anything, Jordan is hurting his movie by giving in to the preciosity that can mar his work. He occasionally shows a group of orphans marching through a town or on a beach in a way that emphasizes his choice of a widescreen process, almost as if the shape of the screen was more important that the human elements within it. And he’s so intent on turning the modern-day brothel into a Gothic labyrinth of rooms and corridors that he never manages to establish its overall form.
Even the choice of language is excessive. There are references to a soucriant, whose meaning is not clear even from context. It turns out to be a Caribbean witch/vampire, but is sending audiences scurrying to the internet the best way to maintain a drama.
There is a famous cinematic vampire, of course, whose appearance recalls a witch more than a bloodsucker: That is the malevolent crone of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931). The screenplay for that movie is based on a short story collection, In a Glass Darkly, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. A collection which also included – why, Carmilla, of course.
So, Jordan is not a bad teacher, if you don’t mind the heavy load of homework. Personally, I prefer him when he makes movies.