Why is Neil Jordan’s latest vampire film titled Byzantium? To be sure, that’s the name of the shabby hotel where Clara and Eleanor, his downscale daughters of darkness, take refuge, and a vampire hitman does brandish a sword he claims he looted from Byzantium during the Crusades. Does Moira Buffini reference the legendary city in her play A Vampire Story, which she adapted for the film? Could be, but I’d lay odds that the title is Neil Jordan’s contribution, and that the boy from County Sligo—W.B. Yeats’ old haunt—means his problematic meditation on the lives of the undead to lead us straight to “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium,” Yeats’ poems about age, time, eternity, and art.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, beset by age and love’s loss, imagined finding a way “out of nature” by becoming a form of art—say, a golden nightingale in fabled Byzantium that would sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” But once arrived in “Byzantium” (penned after “Sailing”), the poet discovers that perfect artifice disdains “all that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” The city’s “blood-begotten spirits” suffer no passions and do not die; immortality simplifies all, for nothing changes or grows or decays. Yeats calls it “death-in-life and life-in-death,” the very state achieved by Jordan’s vampires in his own Byzantium.
Jordan knows a thing or two about the desire to cross over into permanent “perfection,” as well as the awful cost of such transmutations. In Interview with the Vampire (1994), that gift-curse is most cruelly experienced by the little girl (Kirsten Dunst) whom Lestat (Tom Cruise) freeze-frames in time, as a plaything to amuse his “son” (Brad Pitt), already weary of empty vampire pleasures. What horror to see this child—a dressed-up doll as splendid and unnatural as Yeats’ nightingale—rage against her unchanging flesh, the body that will never permit her to satisfy a woman’s appetites. Looking down into a deep cistern, we witness Lestat’s lovely creation, wrapped in the arms of a “mother” she made for herself, suffer the sun, her dead, exquisite flesh flashing into cinders and ashes.
Byzantium has none of the narrative propulsiveness of Interview—or of his nightmarish In Dreams, which pulses with arterial blood and passion. That red river binds damaged man and woman (Robert Downey and Annette Bening), each unable to grow out of unnatural childhood; their blood relation eventually effects an unholy exchange of body and soul, the beginning of a rondelay that may never end.
Blood relations, real and surrogate family, dominate Jordan’s films—for good and ill. Byzantium’s tigress mother (Gemma Arterton) garrottes an emissary from the sinister Fellowship, the men-only vampire enclave she’s outraged twice-over by “turning” her daughter. Seeking sanctuary, she and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) flee to a seedy beach resort (Hastings, on England’s south coast). It’s the fag end of the world; a pier, falling into wrack and ruin, juts out into the gray ocean like a skeletal arm grasping for succor. Sixteen-year-old—forever—Eleanor moves almost like a sleepwalker, but resourceful Clara, sometimes Camilla, hits the ground running: she’s soon netted a sweet mama’s boy (Daniel Mays) who just happens to own a rundown old hotel, the Byzantium, perfect venue for whoring, Clara’s only profession.
In some other place and time, Clara might have been revered as an incarnation of divine fertility. But in this present, she’s all vulgar sexuality, wielding her voluptuous body with casual ease, lush breasts and supple legs traps and weapons against lecherous men. A vivid picture—blood-red lips, ebony mane, fishnet hose, skintight leathers, stiletto heels, black jacket trimmed in faux-feline fur—Clara’s every move is calculated, practiced for centuries. She survives on instinct, sans introspection, a gorgeous animal running a wheel in a cage, going nowhere. In contrast, young Eleanor is an austere creature, the planes of her face refined, her laser-blue gaze fiercely focused. Wrapped in a cocoon of colorless castoffs, she wanders the world like a nun—slowly, silently, in solitude.
Clara mostly thrives in the molten red light of bars and musky bedrooms, her image often shattered by multiple mirrors, barred from clarity by foreground obstructions. In contrast, her daughter—her face simultaneously naked and as closed as any Galatea’s—drifts through dim hallways, tunnels and long promenades, architectural suggestions of birth canals. The two vampires might be sisters; Clara was hardly more than a child-whore when she became a reluctant mother, in a brutal era when “the day you were born was the day you were most likely to be murdered.” What happens now—in this present—is intercut with flashbacks to the 19th century, showing the history of a pretty little girl gathering cockles on a beach, the very beach to which Clara and her hard-won daughter have returned two centuries later. “We’ve been here before,” Eleanor says, gazing at herself filing by in a line of Victorian orphans.
In that past time, two officers take note of Clara’s waifish beauty. Darvell (Sam Riley) gifts her with a pearl; monstrous Lord Ruthven (Elementary’s Jonny Lee Miller, almost unrecognizable) snatches the child up to make her his whore. Clara’s theft of the Fellowship’s secret of eternal life saves her from death by bloody consumption, and saves her daughter, too, after Lord Ruthven rapes her in revenge. (Buffini lifted the names Darvell and Ruthven from a fiction by Byron, which John Polidori then used in The Vampire. Eleanor’s writing style prompts her teacher to wonder if she’s the child of Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Shelley.)
Her mother’s a working fiction, selling the goods with lies. But Eleanor’s considering gaze is that of a writer. Her unflinching eye is ravenous for truth, especially the truth of her peculiar life and death. (A placard in the school where she takes a writing class promotes the mantra “Experience. Identity. Creativity.”) Eleanor writes her story over and over, then throws the pages to the wind, or into the ocean. And Jordan’s narrative interlacing of past and present contributes to the sense of treading time, as though it was water. Immortality for Clara and Eleanor means more of the same, endlessly, the mother engaging in lucrative spasms of punishing sex, the austere, virginal child wandering alone through empty streets, watching for elders she frees from exhausted lives and decaying flesh, contriving a compassionate conclusion to their stories.
The women’s storyline inscribes a circle—form both of perfection and dead-end futility. (What dark humor attends Clara’s lullaby, an old English music hall ditty about a baby so thin—“a skellington wrapped up in skin”—it slips down the sink’s plughole as mother bathes it.) The poet may immortalize and give meaning to experience, rescue it from the stream of time. But Eleanor is already exiled from time; frozen in unchanging flesh, she’ll never be transformed by the alchemy of experience. If nothing new ever happens, where’s the stuff of story? How can she, kin to Yeats’ nightingale, sing of “what is past, or passing or to come”? (Her dilemma is melodramatically exacerbated by the vengeful Fellowship from whom her mother stole the secret of eternal life; these misogynists will not permit a woman to create … anything.)
In one of the loveliest and most poignant passages in Byzantium, an old gentleman finds and reads a few fragments of Eleanor’s tale, grasps the blessing this grave angel might give, and invites her into his home. There, he shares black-and-white pictures from his youth, a photograph of a beautiful bride. “Your wife?” asks Eleanor. Without bitterness, the old man explains she married his brother and never knew she was the love of his life. His face is scored, yet sweetened, by age and suffering. It has become a poem, rich with authentic human experience. And now he would put a period to it: “I’ve spent quite enough time here, believe me.”
“Time” is the most frequently occurring word in Byzantium. Clara frees her aged friend from time by opening a vein in his wrist. But, centuries ago, she herself found “the end of time” in a landscape as primal and immanent as anything in John Boorman’s Excalibur. Beneath bleak cliffs washed by waterfalls, she enters—as her mother did before her—a breast-shaped rock cairn. Clouds of black birds burst into the sky as she struggles through a narrow cleft, to meet and murder her mortal self. The falls run red, celebrating simultaneous death and birth. It’s a profoundly disturbing, magnificent image, as though the earth itself wept blood. In that rough womb-tomb, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, the ravages and pleasures of time are forever halted.
Buffini wrote her play for young people. But little in Byzantium speaks to youth; this slow, meandering, often enervated narrative seems more likely to appeal to old souls. There’s nothing like the hot, overpowering odor of sex and birth and death that characterizes Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984). That film chronicles—through Jungian imagery—a young girl’s rite of passage into womanhood, and the story revels in nature’s blood and mire. For the young woman in Wolves the flow of blood, her menarche, marks change, a new identity. Rosaleen is diving into time, a river of experience that will eventually dry up in death. In contrast, Eleanor has stepped out of time, the bloody waterfall signaling arrested development, like that of the vampire child in Interview.
But Eleanor does finally hearken back to Wolves’ Red Riding Hood, her human sister, in a dim but promising echo of Rosaleen’s coming of age. Ceremonially, Eleanor dons a scarlet-hooded jacket—first sign of color in her relentlessly beige couture—when she’s wakened from her somnolent state by unexpected connection with a ginger-haired boy (Caleb Landry Jones). Pale as death, thinned by leukemia, Frank looks the perfect Romantic hero; a scratch is all it takes for his blood to pour out of his body. Is it possible that Eleanor, her umbilical bond to man-hating mom severed, might break out of her closed circle, lose her vampire virginity, begin a new storyline?
Byzantium’s storyline advances by fits and starts, and peters out in a rather perfunctory climax. Jordan’s signature visual/emotional style doesn’t feel consistently engaged; his themes don’t find organic expression. Still, there are throwaway moments of startling beauty: a screen-spanning field of cabbages, tightly wrapped in silvered leaves like alien skulls swollen with secrets; the heavy pearlescent light in which old men and women swim and drown, in the luxe hotel where Eleanor appropriates the piano for a long, dreamy musical interlude. (“The pearl remains forever while the oyster’s flesh rots around it,” remarks one unforgiving vampire.)
And maybe, in the end, Byzantium achieves some salutary evolution, a way out of the no-exit claustrophobia of constricted lives and repetitious stories. For me, Jordan’s latest seems largely as enervated as the lives of his vampires, coming to life only in the fierce performances of Arterton and especially Ronan. Their faces—one dark and full-featured, the other bright, refined—reflect passionate female appetite, to know and be known.
Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy