Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Film Review: Byzantium (Neil Jordan) 2013

There is a line in the terrible parody film Vampires Suck that states that ‘in the 80s, coke was all the rage; the 90s, grunge. Now it's the era of vampires.’ (borrowed from Peter Bradshaw).  With all of the many glossy American vampire films passing me by with little to no interest, my ears perked up to an independent British vampire film set in a dreary seaside town.

The film begins in a strip club with a feisty dancer called Clara (Gemma Arterton) being harassed by a client, intercut with the broody and poetic teen Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) writing her life story and then throwing the pages to the wind.  Clara leaves the club and is then chased by a mysterious man in a suit who she brutally decapitates; meanwhile Eleanor meets an old man who she calmly offers a peaceful end to before systematically draining all of his blood.  Lo and behold, they’re vampires.

The two of them then hitch out of London and head to Hastings in order to start afresh, something that they have clearly had to do many times.  Immediately Clara begins to turn tricks to raise some money, whilst Eleanor wanders the beach pondering a time when she has been here before.  They meet a loser named Noel (Daniel Mays) who has his mother’s guesthouse in the town and Clara convinces him to let them stay.  Eleanor then meets a young boy who convinces her to go to school as Clara turns Noel’s house into a brothel.  As Eleanor tells her story to Frank and her teacher (Tom Hollander) the film shows flashbacks of how they became vampires and the deadly brotherhood (Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller) that protects their secret.

The central performances of the film are nicely balanced between Arterton’s frenetic, sexual energy and Ronan’s romantic melachncholy.  In Freudian psychoanalysis, the psyche is split into three parts: the unconscious, sexually driven Id; the conscious, critical and rational Superego; and the Ego – the organized mediator.  In this film Clara is the Id, Eleanor is the Superego and the landscape itself is the Ego.  The setting of the film is the anachronistic seaside amusements / fair ground / pier settings of the Britain the middle of the 20th century.  The film seems to suggest the action is happening in the present day but the surroundings the women find themselves in is of a totally different era.  The ruins of the pier acts a reminder of the death of that part of British history and symbolically acts as a mediator between exciting sensory entertainment (slot machines and colourful, mechanical games) and the harsh reality outside.  The location is a character itself that gives dark, sexual opportunities to Clara and harsh memories to Eleanor.

The film seems to make one serious wrong footing in the worrying presentation of gender politics over time.  Whereas in the flashback scenes the characters are forced into brothels, as they have nowhere else to go – the implication is that Clara is ‘tainted’ after her first encounter with a customer and must now stay as it is the only place for her – in the present day scenes Clara has chosen to prostitute herself to support them both.  Eleanor frequently says that there could be another way to earn money but Clara chooses this method.  I am unsure of the implications of this, is she an empowered feminist sex worker?  Or is she forever “a whore” as she is still tainted from the past?  With all the current debate about intersectionality and ‘privileged checking’, I will allow others to decide for themselves.

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