Tuesday, August 13, 2013


After I watched Byzantium a couple of weeks ago, I talked to some people on my way out, and tried to describe what I thought of the film—which was that it was quite good, but that the third act was something of a mess. But messy how? I had a hard time with that, and at the time could not come up with anything better than that there was a shift in tone that seemed inconsistent with what had come before. It was not quite as though the film had gone off the rails, but it was close. Or, at least, that was as close as I could come at that moment to getting at what I meant. I sat down to write about the film, but understood almost immediately that the answer was not in the offing; and I was less motivated than I often am to write about film, knowing full well that there is practically no audience for an elaborately written, moderately challenging film about female vampires who use adaptive thumbnails instead of fangs to puncture the necks of their victims when it is time to feed.

I let it go, thinking consciously that I would just skip writing about this one. My subconscious, however, had other designs. And so it was, a week or so after I saw Byzantium, that I was talking to Ryan about films in general, and about how the company we sell our labor to for a pittance doesn’t give a frog’s fat ass* about film because they’re all about the Benjamins. (And this is a company that is owned by a gajillionaire.) Instead of being a place with some art house credibility, we play The Lone Ranger, anything from Pixar except the one about the girl (because that would be sort of progressive), and anything Warner Brothers tells us to play. Things like Byzantium and Ginger & Rosa play for a week and are gone before anyone knows it. I mentioned, off the cuff, that notwithstanding the sensationalism of Byzantium (quite a lot of blood, Gemma Arterton in a dizzying array of bustiers, and—oh yes—all that blood), it was also a remarkable film because of the thoughtful, meticulous way it unspooled its story.

There are more vampire stories out there than you can shake a stick at, but actual vampire lore is something else altogether. Byzantium opens with two girls on the run, and the pieces of the story are revealed as the progress of the action requires them. This is the reverse of what is too often seen in explosion-laden summer blockbuster joints by Michael Bay (or Jerry Bruckheimer, or Roland Emmerich, and on and on): A flimsy story of good versus evil, or of convicts on a cargo plane, or of aliens coming to take over the world in spaceships that blot out the sky exists only to prop up (however unsteadily) a series of set pieces designed to thrill. In Byantium, the action on screen cannot exist without its backstory; and the only bits of story that we get are the ones that we need to make sense of what is currently taking place. During that talk with Ryan, I realized that the problem with Byzantium was the way that it abandoned its meticulous storytelling, in the thid act, for a far more conventional action film climax.

I’m also not sure that it could have been avoided. A central element of the vampire lore employed in the film is that the creatures are not coffin-bound during the daylight hours. They walk and talk amongst the regulars, and this blurs the line between human and vampire, a theme treated extensively throughout the film by screenwriter Moira Buffini, who adapts her own stage play, A Vampire Story. Vampires, like Mafiosi, are often played as romantic, with a healthy dollop of classical Greek tragedy; but also as separate, distinct from those not like themselves in ways that, once done, cannot be undone. This distinction, in part, fuels the fascination we have with vampires and the Mafia. When Buffini turns that distinction just slightly, she presents characters that are able to experience and respond to human nature more fully than vampires that can only come out at night.

It would be a cheap plot contrivance if not for the fully articulated backstory that provides a genesis myth, conflict, motive, and pursuit. This history defines these vampires as distinct from others of their kind, which confers credibility upon their being daytrippers. That, however, is all you’re going to get from me. I already feel like I might have given away too much, but films like this can’t be talked about for very long without getting deep into the details. One last thing I should mention is the casting of the leads, Gemma Arterton as Clara and Saoirse Ronan as Clara’s younger sister Eleanor. Though the younger, Eleanor is perhaps the wiser of the two, played by Ronan with a stoicism colored ever so gently by an existential fear that comes from living in the shadow of her older sister. Clara is far more lusty and exuberant than Eleanor, a sensual role that is right in Arterton’s wheelhouse.

She is either extremely comfortable using her sexuality as an expression of power, or enjoys playing characters who use their sexuality as an expression of power. I suppose it’s also possible that she’s being exploited for that sexuality by the Hollywood system...but take a second and see if you can name three things Byzantium has in common with the Hollywood system. I’ll even go ahead and give you the two brand-name stars. Now you only have to come up with one thing that this film has in common with the typical cookie-cutter films produced by Hollywood. And just to throw a little monkey into the wrench, Arterton also stars in another current release, the geriatric funeral dirge cum love song, Unfinished Song. If she has been typecast so far as the buxom seductress with few qualms about taking off her clothes, then her role there as the choir teacher should go some of the way toward altering that perception.

*—July 29, 2013, was the 30th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon's Vacation.

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