Although this is another Vampire movie to add to the full, of not bursting list that has graced our screens in the past. Byzantium takes a somewhat different approach.
If one were to enter this film with no concept in their head, the title 'Byzantium' my simply be a cool title that references to the ancient city where presently Istanbul stands. Director, Neil Jordan who also directed Interview with the Vampire, sets this film off with no indication of vampires. But as the film develops, it doesn't focus simply on the supernatural aspect, but is boiled down to the relationship between two female vampires and their place in society. Unlike other vampire stories, not only do they focus on two women but they don't become vampires from the commercialized way of a bite. Despite the film being about vampires, writer Moira Buffini executes it in such a way thatthe supernatural aspect could easily be overlooked and still leave a compelling story of how this seemingly random relationship came to be.
The film opens on Eleanor, brought to life by the captivating Saoirse Ronan, as she discusses why she writes her stories down although they must remain untold. Having this as an opening, it sets up the atmosphere of being trapped and burdened by one's past. But although her stories are clearly more elaborate than the average person, it creates a sense of relatability as everyone holds secrets that they cannot share. Her clear sense of innocence and youthful purity contrasts with the introduction of Clara. Clara, whose played by the equally charming Gemma Arterton, creates a stark difference to Eleanor as she is found in a strip club, half naked, grinding on a man. Eleanor describes her as "my savior, my burden" which instantly implies that behind her innocence is Clara protecting her from the harshness of reality in any way she can. Although their relationship is not explained from the onset. It is obvious that they are bonded, though not necessarily by choice.
Like most movies, a male (or two) are introduced in order to create a wedge. Eleanor struggles to find herself while trying to be who she has been told to be. Whilst Clara remains just as hard to dissect as before. In fact, Clara appears to be a modern take on the femme fatal as the facade she puts up draws men in who want to help her and inevitably lead to their downfall. Even though Clara is tough and at times almost heartless, it is hard to hate her character with the moments of sincerity and fierce protectiveness she has over Eleanor.
As the film unravels and we're given glimpses into their pasts, both when they were human and after they were turned, their individual struggles are aired. They may not share the same troubles many people still face, but once Clara's past is revealed it creates an understanding of why she has become the person she is today. She had a youthful innocence, very much like Eleanor still does. But due to unfortunate circumstances molded her into the spiteful character. Young Clara who was forced into a brothel is sadly not an outdated concept so it brings a story set in the past to a current problem, further adding a touch of realism.
In fact, for most of the first half of the film, the concept of vampire's is glossed over to establish a basis to set up Clara and Eleanor's established characters before introducing glimpses into their pasts and answering the larger questions of their past.
Frank, played by Caleb Landry Jones, is the young male who comes between Eleanor and Clara. Although not initially set up as a love interest for Eleanor, he becomes something unique to her- a friend. Such a storyline is typical with nerds or social awkward people. But Eleanor's story is one of secrets and struggle with creating meaningful connections. Frank is important than just being someone for Eleanor to create a relationship with (romantic or otherwise) but he also disrupts Clara and Eleanor's flow that had been working for years. As his presence has awoken something in Eleanor making her be less passive about her life and want to do something for herself by staying put whilst going against Clara's demands. It is the first, noticeable character development for Eleanor. Which touches home on the idea of the teenagers pulling away from their parents or guardians grasp. For once, Eleanor wants to establish her own persona.
The film has arching themes of secrets, protection, struggle and love. It allows the audience to still be able to connect and sympathize with their situations. It is also presented in such a way that draws away from the typical vampire flick that takes place typically in the evenings or shadowed rooms or creating an elaborate story as to why they can walk in the day. Although Clara and Eleanor are not tanning, they are certainly not restricted to the darkness and are allowed to walk among humans. What I found particularly pleasing is that there is almost never any harsh lighting. Most daytime shots are during overcast days, which are clearly cold. It adds a rigidness and a discomfort that sunshine could not replicate. Further reinforcing the idea that nothing in their lives are blue skies and happy, rather they live in a current state of bleakness. This unflattering blandness engulfs them as they run from one place to the next hiding not only from those who are a threat but their pasts. Yet in the safety of their house, the soft lighting gives the false pretense of safety. Not only does the weather help reinforce particular situations but creates a pathetic fallacy which further reminds viewers of the complexity of their lives.
Even the attire is an important feature. Not only does it establish where we are in the timeline of either Eleanor or Clara's life by changing between colonial clothes of the past and common clothes of the present. But it reestablishes the characters personality. In Eleanor's case, she is often wearing multiple layers of comfortable clothes that are either dull colors or earthy shades. This implies her longing for not only protection but comfort- something she doesn't have in a conventional way with Clara. But the dull colors also establishes the fact that she would rather blend in then stand out. In comparison to this, Clara is introduced wearing lingerie revealing not only much of her skin but her risque and shameless side. When wearing more conventional outfits, they are almost always tight, revealing, black outfits that shows off her figure. It reflects her personality as tough and fearless but also acts as a shield or a facade that she is heartless and does not care for anything. They style of her clothes are also purposeful since they draw in male attention which she has learned to manipulate to get her way- a more realistic version of 'glamoring' found in some vampire lore. Yet, in the flashbacks she wears loose, white, colonial style dresses which reminds us how similar she was to Eleanor and the way she was before she changed.
One narrative aspect I really enjoyed about the film were the snippets of information about both how they became to be vampires and how they know each other. But establishing their relationship from the offset without explaining their connection instantly draws you in to deduce their past. Additionally, the slow reveal of their individual journeys to becoming vampires is not anything like what I have come to expect. The stark contrast between Ronan and Arterton's acting keeps you interested to understand why Clara is so harsh and Eleanor is conflicted with her story. This unconventional vampire story kept me intrigued from the first minute till the conclusion. The wavering pace as it started slow, giving you a taste of what to come then melding into action sequences kept me excited for what will happen next. Byzantium was a breath of fresh air among the endless list of corny, overly romanticized vampire films. But the best part of is that even if you have no interest in vampires, the film is not purely focused on it and Ronan and Arterton bring to life this confusing yet fascinating relationship.