Friday, December 13, 2013

Story Time: Neil Jordan's Byzantium

Gemma Arterton & Saoirse Ronan in Byzantium

More than a quarter of a century after he made Mona Lisa, Neil Jordan’s movies still have a mesmeric narrative pull – the pull of stories out of The Arabian Nights. He doesn’t command the respect he once did: no one went to see Ondine, his marvelous update of the legend about the romance between a fisherman and a water spirit, and his latest, vampire tale Byzantium, opened in only a handful of cities. (It’s now on DVD.) But that’s not Jordan’s fault – he’s never stopped being a master filmmaker and a master storyteller. Byzantium, adapted by Moira Ruffini from her play, is astonishing. Its protagonist is Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who travels with Clara (Gemma Arterton), whom she describes in her voice-over narration as “my secret, my muse.” They’re mother-and-daughter vampires, which means that they look like sisters – Clara hasn’t aged since her early twenties, Eleanor since her adolescence. Clara is the pragmatist who supports them by whoring and thievery, while sensitive Eleanor is at odds with the life she’s been thrown into. Clara gave birth to her when she was working in a brothel in the early nineteenth century and had to give her up (or kill her, which she didn’t have the heart for), so Eleanor was raised in a Catholic orphanage where she was taught not to lie. Clara thrives on lying, and she’s brilliant at it, while her daughter is haunted by the fact that her entire life is a lie built around a secret she’s forbidden to reveal. But she can’t help herself – she writes the story of her life and her mother’s on sheets of paper and then lets them float away on the wind.

In the seaside town where they find themselves after circumstances force them to run away from their last home, she finds another venue for her literary compulsion. When a teenage boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, a riveting young actor with long, mermaid-like red hair and a furry half-croak of a voice) hears her play piano in the restaurant where he works , he becomes enchanted and, overcoming her habitual resistance, he befriends her. She starts attending school with him, and when their English teacher, Kevin (Tom Hollander), sends them off to write true stories, she presents hers not to Kevin but to Frank as a gift. “Fuckin’ brilliant story,” he tells her. “But the assignment called for truth.” And though Eleanor never intended it for anyone else’s eyes, Frank hands it over to Kevin, who shows it to his colleague, Morag (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Kevin assumes it’s straight-up fiction coming from a gifted imagination; Morag reads the tale of this girl who claims to hang out with vampires and assumes it’s a metaphor for a perilous environment – for child abuse – and that Eleanor needs rescuing.

director Neil Jordan
The plot is complicated; it moves quickly, and on two parallel narrative tracks – the present-day story and the nineteenth-century one that Eleanor unfolds – and it’s a little tortuous. You have to concentrate to get all of it, and then there are a few glitches. But Ruffini’s screenplay is rich and suggestive, with a poet’s love of metaphor. You see it especially in the way she plays with the concept of turning, which, as anyone who’s seen a vampire movie knows, refers to the transformation from mortal to vampire. In Byzantium, though, when a soldier named Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller) seduces young Clara, then callously tosses her a coin and quips that she should be grateful to him for finding her a career, his turning her into a whore (since he leaves a poor girl of that time no other choice) anticipates her becoming a vampire a few years later. Since we get the nineteenth-century story in a series of brief, non-linear flashbacks, when Ruthven rapes Eleanor later as revenge for some betrayal of her mother’s, we assume that somewhere along the way the soldier became a vampire and bit Eleanor, but again what Ruffini is referring to is sex. Of course, the bite of the vampire has always, in literature and film, had a sexual connotation: it was Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula, who came up with the idea of his heroine, Mina, keeping Count Dracula in her bed until the dawn so he can be destroyed by the sun’s rays. But Ruffini takes the idea farther. In one of the present-day scenes, Clara lets a young man pick her up and leads him to a deserted area of the beach, where she mounts him and sinks her teeth into his neck; this may be the most vividly erotic episode I’ve seen in a vampire movie. Eleanor’s voice-over tells us about Clara coming down with TB in her early whoring days, adding that girls like her didn’t usually last long, and again we make a sexual connection, this time to syphilis, the most likely killer of Victorian prostitutes. (In F.W. Murnau’s great Nosferatu, the first vamp movie, the infection spread by the Dracula character is a metaphor for the plague.) Ironically, becoming a vampire saves her from an ignominious death.

The teenage romance of Frank and Eleanor is the film’s most compelling twinning of vampirism and sex, as well as its most intriguing exploration of a vampire’s immortality, which in every other movie I’ve seen is only creepy. Frank is dying of leukemia; when Eleanor accidentally knocks him off his bike, he almost bleeds to death because of the anti-coagulants he’s taking and has to be hauled off to the hospital. She’s left alone in the street with the bloody rag he pressed to his head when he fell; in an amazing moment, she puts it to her lips like a love token – or a delicacy. When she goes to visit his sick room, she caresses the tubes attached to him with her fingers. Eleanor lives on blood like any other vamp, but her more sensitive nature and her Catholic upbringing have provoked her to restrict herself to the blood of the old, who greet her as a long-awaited angel of death. But when she reveals herself to Frank, who adores her – and when he realizes she’s telling him the truth and not just spinning a yarn – he asks her to turn him, and the request encompasses sex (he’s a virgin) and also, as in the case of the tubercular whore Clara’s, a bid for immortality – and with the girl he loves – in place of an untimely death from cancer.

Caleb Landry Jones
The movie is extraordinarily clever and witty; it reaps the rewards of Joss Whedon’s genius, on his TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in employing vampirism and other supernatural states as symbols for the long list of disturbances and traumas that naturally accompany adolescence. In their often hilarious scenes together, Clara and Eleanor use their situation to rehearse the tensions between every teenage girl and her mother – when Clara reminds her that exposing the secret of her identity to a mortal can only result in his or her death, Eleanor snaps back that she’s only saying that out because she wants to isolate her. Byzantium is also the first feminist vamp movie. From the beginning of the picture the two women are being pursued by men who we assume are vampire hunters, but they turn out to be vampires themselves, members of a cult called The Brotherhood that believes a woman bloodsucker is an abomination. When she is first turned and sues for membership in their order, they demand to know how she plans to use her powers, and she answers that she wants to punish those who prey on the weak and to fight the injustice of men. (They’re not impressed.)

Arterton is quite fine as Clara, but the heart of the movie is Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eleanor. The child actor who knocked everyone with her out as the thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis in Atonement (and followed it up with excellent work in largely unseen pictures like City of Embers, Death Defying Acts and The Way Back) is now a nineteen-year-old auburn beauty of astonishing lyric gifts who might, with the right parts, be able to accomplish what the young Julie Harris did in the 1950s. Her scenes with Caleb Landry Jones are the most unconventional teen-romance encounters since Harris played opposite James Dean in East of Eden, though Jones’s weird presence as Frank – fey yet unmistakably straight, with one foot already in some world beyond our own – isn’t like Dean’s or anyone else’s.

When the movie begins, in a club where Clara gives lap dances to customers, you feel that Jordan has returned to the territory of Mona Lisa, the 1986 movie that put him on the map. But as soon as the story begins to develop, you realize that it overlaps with Mona Lisa only in the lyricism of its imagery and in the theme of the power of storytelling. Here stories are embedded within other stories; the movie sometimes feels like the mysteriously linked dreams of a long sleep, which can make you feel sodden with half-remembered images when you finally shake yourself awake. Jordan’s only previous foray into this genre was his 1994 adaptation of Interview with a Vampire, and it wasn’t much good apart from the spirit Kirsten Dunst brought to her scenes. Byzantium more than compensates for that long-ago slip; it’s one of the most breathtaking achievements of this year.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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