Neil Jordan’s Byzantium makes a fine companion piece to Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011), which also stars Saoirse Ronan as a lethal teenaged girl at a remove from humanity, navigating a beautifully shot metaphor for female coming-of-age and all its associations with the loss of ‘purity’ or ‘innocence.’ It’s also a logical follow-up to Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), which uses the werewolf myth to similarly explore female adolescence and the mythic associations of sexuality with dread.
Both Byzantium’s vampire Eleanor and Hanna’s eponymous teen super-soldier (Ronan in two remarkable performances) are girls who murder people. But both are portrayed as essentially innocent, child-like. They’re ushered towards adulthood on a trail of bloodshed made necessary by the stories imposed on them by the dominant narratives of men. Girls shouldn’t be warriors. Girls shouldn’t hold the power of immortality. Girls shouldn’t be sexually active, or flaunt their sexuality, until and unless sanctioned by men. The cinematic violence of these characters becomes a symptom, a reaction to the violence, symbolic and real, imposed upon them by men.
In Hanna, Ronan’s young assassin is hunted by a murderous woman, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), but a woman who’s given herself to an obsessive, sterile ‘masculinity’ to succeed as a CIA operative. Marissa haunts Hanna and her father like a vengeful spectre in search of her lost right to motherhood. Hanna is the daughter she can’t have, the warrior she’s not allowed to be, and so must die. In Byzantium, Eleanor is gifted immortality by her mother Clara (played with mercurial ferocity by an excellent Gemma Arterton) to save her from a disease given to her through sexual violence inflicted by a man, a military figure known only as the Captain (Johnny Lee Miller, having fun with a theatrically villainous role). Eleanor and Clara are hounded after from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first by men for the aberration of their immortality, as vampirism is a strict boys-only club in writer Moira Buffini’s (who wrote the screenplay based on her play) take on the myth.
Clara and Eleanor’s rebirth into this power kept for men is a perfect metaphor for womanhood as defined by frightened men. It emphasizes the sexual subtext of female vampires as a signifier of the enduring male fear of female empowerment, like the femmes fatale of film noir. After all, as Kate Beaton once observed, Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire text Dracula works an eloquent expression of Victorian male hysteria at the thought of sexually liberated women.
No surprise, then, that among Byzantium’s many striking images is mother-vampire Clara bathing in a bloody waterfall after emerging reborn from a womb-like shrine, ecstatic at having taken from men what is rightfully hers. It reminded me thematically of the moment in The Company of Wolves where the teenage protagonist’s dream is overrun by a pack of wolves that break down the walls of her psyche, a terrifying image of liberation.
The parallels of myth to reality are made clearer by having Clara make a living for herself and Eleanor as a sex worker (the film’s title comes from the failed waterfront hotel she turns into a brothel). It’s no coincidence that Clara is called a “witch” by male vampires, who kill and drink blood just as she does, but see her as somehow loathsome. Just as women who are prostitutes and strippers (our first glimpse of Clara is as a scantily-clad stripper gyrating in the lap of a belligerent, demanding man) are branded dirty ‘whores’ even as they cater to the male gaze of patriarchal cultures.
It’s only apt that Eleanor is trapped in adolescence, when girls begin to grow into the sexuality that has terrified men across millennia worth of oppressive patriarchies and sociocultural oppression. Eleanor’s the one telling this tale, and she does it with the deliberately overwrought emotionality of eighteenth-century Gothic literature as written by a very precocious teen (a fact commented on by characters in the film). She’s tortured with angst, like all teenagers, but her reasons are more sound than can be hoped. After all, she has to go about killing the elderly to satiate herself, appeasing her guilt by ascribing their deaths to mercy. Not to mention that after two hundred years, she’s as confused about romance and sexuality as her sixteen year-old self, conflating sex with immorality and violence because of the lives she and Clara have led.
The Byronic men in Clara’s origin story, Miller’s Captain and vanilla hero Darvell (Sam Riley), come off as intentional caricatures of the arrogant Heathcliffs and Rochesters of Gothic romances because of Eleanor’s point-of-view. Eleanor’s present-day romantic interest comes from a more effective inversion of masculine archetypes in a fragile, sickly teen student, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), whom Clara calls “sexy as an old shoe.” The irony of Eleanor, a parasitic immortal, becoming a nurturing figure to the pallid Frank is clear. They’re drawn together by the fact that the world has constrained what they can achieve right from the beginning.
The inherently self-centred nature of Eleanor’s adolescent narration reduces secondary characters into brief, poorly developed bit players in the dark tale of Clara and Eleanor’s survival across the ages. The ages (two hundred years worth) are also similarly glossed over, making it feel like little has transpired between Clara and Eleanor since they first became vampires. That Eleanor still seems so fixed in the persona of a teenager after two centuries doesn’t quite make sense. But grounded as it is by Ronan and Arterton’s excellent performances, Eleanor and Clara’s relationship centres the film with its effective metaphorical examination of growing up (and raising a girl) within the context of pervasive cultural misogyny.
Buffini’s feminist reading of the vampire myth isn’t new, but it’s dealt with in an intelligent and interesting way (despite a single, odd concession to traditionalism in the final act). Paired with Jordan’s visual poeticism and skill at foregrounding subtext in fecund imagery, Buffini’s ideas bring the somewhat sketchy plot to sanguine life, giving Byzantium resonance and depth deserving of its central duo. Watch it with The Company of Wolves to see why Neil Jordan should be making more female-centric supernatural fantasy. Watch it with Hanna to see Saoirse Ronan, a star in the making at nineteen, effortlessly assume the mantle of modern mythmaking in films destined to be under-appreciated for their lack of bottomless marketing budgets.