Byzantium (2012) comes from director Neil Jordan, who also directed the adaptations of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Angela Carter's In the Company of Wolves (1984). Byzantium is the exact culmination of these two films after over two decades later. Obviously it is a vampire film, but to me, it is the exact kind of dark fairy tale that I have been searching for all my life and only seen from a rare few directors. One of them is Guillermo Del Toro with the film Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and the other is Neil Jordan with In the Company of Wolves and Byzantium.
Byzantium came at a time where the world was still suffering from the glut of vampire films and tv after Twilight's success, so it suffered for that. Plus some critics did not seem to find the film "edgy" or scary enough. But that is not the point of Byzantium's story. Byzantium is a story about women. It should be noted that the script was written by a woman--- Moira Buffini, who also adapted the excellent 2011 version of Jane Eyre.
Byzantium tells the story of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) Webb, who are mother and daughter, but in present day tell everyone they are sisters Claire and Ella. Clara and Eleanor are vampires by any other name, but that really isn't the driving force of the story. What is though, is how Clara became a vampire, the after effects of the trauma of her previous life, how that story has become Eleanor's burden over the years, and the codependency between mother and daughter.
We find out that Clara's story begins in the Napoleonic Wars, where Clara was forced into prostitution by Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) (a sly jab here with the name). In 1804 she gives birth to Eleanor. She sends Eleanor to an orphanage and pays for her upkeep.
Years later, Ruthven returns from the war, probably riddled with syphilis already, while Clara is dying from consumption. Midshipman Darvell (Sam Riley) whom Ruthven presumed to be dead, visits Ruthven in the brothel while he is with Clara. He gifts him the map to an island where people can turn into vampires if they are willing to die. Clara seizes the opportunity, wounds Ruthven, steals the map and becomes a vampire. Her transformation is a spellbinding scene, where she is literally baptised in blood.
Darvell finds her and takes her to the Brethren, the secret order of vampires who cast Clara out as she is 1) female 2) a whore 3) of low birth.
The Brotherhood represent the writer's critique of the patriarchy, and its systematic oppression and rejection of women. Part of their rules besides not allowing women into their order is that after Clara, "women are not permitted to create." This calls to mind some of the roots of horror, which lie in the fears of men regarding the woman's ability to procreate: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the best example, where the Bride of Frankenstein is destroyed for fear of her procreating.
But Clara is a survivor, as most women have to be, but Ruthven, who represents the most savage part of our patriarchal society, comes back for Eleanor. Clara is too late to save Eleanor, so she takes her to be changed.
Now, rape as a way to propel a female narrative is something that is all too common ad I resent its use most of the time, but I think here in Byzantium, it is not merely used to show us that these women are "strong female characters", or rape and revenge, or worse, for the reaction of a male character (see: Game of Thrones). The story gives you insights on how both Clara and Eleanor have reacted to their rape. Clara has hardened herself, and while she says she wishes to curb the power of men--- because of what Ruthven has done to her, what he has left of her is a woman who only knows how to make her living as a sex worker. She does not hesitate to attack and kill anyone who threatens her or Eleanor's life. It has to be said that I think it's commendable that the script never ever judges Clara for her actions.
While we still see Eleanor has painful memories of the incident, she has mostly coped fairly well in terms of her interactions with other people. Her vampirism is an additional reason for her to shut herself off to other people, but she still seeks to connect with others, providing another perspective of a rape survivor. Clara is radical, extreme and hardened, Eleanor is cautious and hopeful. Both are reasonable and realistic reactions.
The film also deals with the mother/daughter relationship that is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) rarely dealt in film. Theirs is of course, an extreme form of codependency that a mother and daughter can have. It deals with the comfort and love, and the conflict a mother can have with her daughter that is particularly unique to mother/daughter relationships. It felt very relatable to me, as I too have a very close but also tenuous relationship with my own mother.
I could go on about Byzantium. The two lead performances by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are magnetic. The score by Javier Navarrete (who also scored Del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth) is beautifully haunting. But what i think makes Byzantium unique for me is its female driven narrative, its criticism of the patriarchy and the mother/daughter relationship (and both Clara and Eleanor's own personal arcs) that make the movie so compelling. That kind of female driven storytelling, the open ending, the blood and teeth in its script makes me call it a dark fairy tale (fairy tales were, surprise surprise, told by women). I hope Neil Jordan makes more films like this.