The enduring appeal of vampire stories has, I think, something to do with their strange dual function as erotic fantasies and wistful memento mori. The vampire has been imagined on screen alternately as a dominating, threatening sexual presence (Plan 9’s Vampira, Jean Rollin’s curvaceous bloodsuckers and their virginal victims, Twilight’s hormonal undead teens) and as a melancholy symbol of the cost of eternal life (the disembodied shadows and ghostly doppelgängers of Dreyer’s Vampyr, the unaging 12-year-old who passes from guardian to guardian in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Murnau’s Nosferatu, Herzog’s elegiac re-imagining of the same). The two aren’t mutually exclusive; if anything, the vampire feeds off the life, warmth, and sexual energy of others because it lacks those qualities itself. The vampire film often serves to make us more comfortable about the idea of death by presenting us with a particularly unpleasant alternative: in comparison with the vampire’s lonely routine of painfully, furtively stealing life from the young and healthy while watching cities crumble and cliffs erode, mortality almost seems like a blessing.
That seems to be the conclusion of the elderly men and women who offer themselves up as prey for young vampire Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) in Neil Jordan’s delirious new film Byzantium. The movie’s scenes of vampirism-as-euthanasia are gentle, quiet, and very sad. It’s unclear whether Eleanor’s victims, lit through dusty lampshades and surrounded by fading tomes, are sacrificing themselves for her sake, or whether they’ve just chosen, for whatever reason, to end their own lives; either way, it’s suggested that she’s giving them a degree of peace she herself will never know.
If Eleanor is Byzantium’s vampire-as-tragic-hero, her mother Clara, who works as a prostitute to support their two-person family, is the movie’s hyper-sexualized femme fatale. Jordan films her as an aggregate of seductive details: bright-red lips, exaggerated curves, sharpened fingernails (no fangs here), and fishnet-sheathed legs propped up by foot-high stilettos. This piecemeal approach, in which a character’s essential qualities only emerge gradually from a succession of particulars, extends to most other aspects of Byzantium’s construction. Every moment in the movie seems designed to make you forget about the ones before and ignore the ones to come. Every image, every visual motif, every object, and every plot device intends to seize you completely, seduce you, envelop you: blood-red hoods, deep blue flowers, bright orange flames, abandoned waterfront theme parks, seedy neon-lit hotels, heaving bodices, stuffy 19th-century bordellos, dissolute military captains, abandoned islands, secret maps, whispered secrets, walls of mirrors, huge swarms of crows, patriarchal vampire clans, crusade-era scimitars, multiple decapitations, mother-daughter screaming matches, stories nestled within stories, nuns marching single file across deserted beaches, waterfalls of blood.
It’s remarkable, given all this, that the film’s narrative is as coherent and affecting as it is, and that Clara becomes more the subject of Jordan’s empathy than the object of his lust (although there’s some of that, too). Her volatile relationship with Eleanor is the movie’s emotional center: on some level, Byzantium is a perfectly straightforward teenage-girl-comes-of-age-and-struggles-to-leave-the-nest drama, albeit with a few more severed heads. But the movie’s tensions are deeper than this, and, I think, much more specific to the vampire film. For Clara, human contact—and sex in particular—is purely functional: it’s a bargaining tool, a survival skill, and a way of making ends meet. Eleanor’s dissatisfaction isn’t with the idea of home, but with the particular limits her own home imposes on her: the inability to accept death (as her ailing, elderly victims can), and with it, the inability to treat sexuality as an affirmation of life, a temporary victory over death (as her mother’s clients can—one comes to her seeking comfort in the immediate wake of his mother’s funeral). In this respect, Byzantium resembles one of the strangest and most beautiful of all vampire movies: Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, in which a girl on the cusp of puberty comes to associate eternal life with threatening bloodsuckers and licentious priests, and mortal life with a kind of Edenic, warm-blooded sexual freedom.
It’s hard to know what to make of the film’s ending—in which Eleanor, having earned her mother’s permission to leave home, takes her sensitive young beau (Caleb Landry Jones) to the island where mortals become bloodsuckers and, with his timid consent, makes a vampire out of him. Clara’s story, too, ends with the suggestion that the vampire’s life might allow for lasting sympathy: she strolls off alongside a penitent fellow immortal (Sam Riley) who resolves to earn her forgiveness after siding with her abusers (“We have time,” he tells her as they walk out of view). Maybe, Jordan suggests, immortality isn’t so bad after all.
Byzantium’s resolution strikes me as suspiciously easy, particularly in contrast to one moment in the film’s longest flashback: teenaged Clara escapes the brothel where she’s been forced to live and work, sails to the same island that her daughter will visit a couple hundred years later, and, after making herself immortal, bathes with wild, joyful abandon in a torrential downpour of blood. It’s an unsettling take on the Christian redemption narrative: a victim of the worst possible injustices is washed clean in salvific blood and given eternal life—only, at least at this point, the eternal life in question looks a lot more like Hell than Heaven. The thrill of Jordan’s film (until, perhaps, its last few minutes) is that it plunges into the ensuing inferno so gleefully and so gratefully—as if what it was leaving behind were even worse.