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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Byzantium

02.11.2016

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at BYZANTIUM.

THE STORY: 

THE PLAYERS: Director Neil Jordan. Writer/adapter Moira Buffini. Actors Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Maria Doyle Kennedy. Composer Javier Navarrete. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit (12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES).

THE HISTORY: Moira Buffini was already a succesful playwright when she wrote A Vampire Story as part of the NT (National Theatre) Connections program in 2008, and a succesful screenwriter (TAMARA DREWE, JANE EYRE) by the time she was commissioned by producer/director Stephen Woolley to adapt it for the screen. When director Neil Jordan read the script he found himself thinking it wasn't as deep into its genre as it could be, with his main note for Buffini being "don’t be afraid of writing a vampire movie, don’t be afraid of writing a generic piece where there is blood and there is decapitation and there is also the lurid, fantastic nature of stuff like that."  As someone who normally writes his own material, Jordan limited his involvement on the script level to translating certain events and locations to his native Ireland - the original text had the soldiers involved with the Peloponnesian Wars before finding themselves in a graveyard in Greece, with the vampirism connected to snake bite. Location scouting was done in Morocco, but memories of the west of Ireland drew him to suggest the shift as "it seemed far more of a piece with the story." 

Budgeted at around $9 million, BYZANTIUM premiered in Ireland on April 28th 2013 and alas went on to earn just under $90,000 in its limited United States release and a total of just over $800,000 worldwide. Even with $400,000+ in DVD/Blu-Ray sales and general favorable reviews, the film very much seemed to come and go with all the shadow and quiet of the monsters at its heart.

I felt like it was all in the script to be honest and I mean the whole film is the back story really and luckily we had all those facts about what [our characters] had been through and where she came from and all that kind of stuff.  I think in rehearsals like [we discussed] what happened to Gemma's parents and things like that.  But, I mean everything was pretty much on the page for us and luckily Gemma and I got on from the off and she is very warm and was very maternal towards me.  So, that came very naturally to us anyway, that whole mother, daughter relationship.  – Saoirse Ronan

WHY IT'S GREAT: I first read Dracula when I was twelve. An only child who often moved, newly missing a father who was off being someone else’s father, Bram Stoker’s book absolutely seduced me with the archaically evocative language, striking imagery, horror – and its sex. The best horror imaginers are prophets in their way, capturing fears that are growing in their readers without their readers being aware of it. Dracula captured those for the people of the era – fears of (among many others) “insidious foreigners,” emasculation, the growing power and strength of women in society, and the sexuality that so many of us share. Victorian society was growing up, just as I was, as painfully and awkwardly as you might imagine, and Stoker’s novel worked on me in a way I’ve never forgotten.  Not long after that I gave in to the final taboo temptation and read Clive Barker, the modern-day extension of Stoker’s relationship to and between religion, magic, myth, and sexuality, and now here we are. More or less.

BYZANTIUM isn’t about any of that. At least not in the obvious sense of the genre’s accoutrements, the rules and lore and imagery so often associated with the increasingly-overworked monster birthed by a succession of writers leading to Stoker’s 1987 publication.  Instead it serves as second in a curious trilogy of films that use vampires in the most surface of senses while at the same time largely doing away with most of the monster’s surface identifiers, and is the better for it. It was released between 2008’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and 2014’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, and like those films BYZANTIUM’s greatest strength (right up alongside its design and direction) lies with the relationship between two characters. Two very different characters, who are given immortality and then 200+ years later placed in a perfect storm of circumstances that challenge them to change and grow if they’re ever going to survive emotionally in a world that is itself only changing faster and faster as it spins on and on. They grow up as the world grows up, and it is this all-too human focus that defines the film.

I felt the dialogue was very specific. Some of it could even be called “clunky,” but I deliberately didn’t want to put my fingers on it. I felt it was important to preserve Moira’s voice, as a woman and as a writer: She had ways of approaching things that I wouldn’t have taken. What I liked about the script was its multifaceted quality — it turns into different things. It’s like a lantern that lets you see different aspects of the story. – Neil Jordan 

BYZANTIUM tells the tale of two women on the run from what is eventually revealed to be an obsessively patriarchal society, their connection to both it and to each other making up the film’s fundamental mystery. This is paid off in several backstory sequences which are well done but inevitably somewhat clunky due to the propulsive evolution of the relationship between two woman being forced to wait impatiently while we learn the hows and the whys and the wherefores. But that really is just mystery on a plot level, a dramatic question of plot-sized proportions that serves as an mechanism to facilitate the exploration of a deeper mystery: can these women adapt enough to survive, both in context of their relationship to each other and each one’s relationship to the world in which they live? The transition of a human body from youth to young adulthood is a painful, awkward, and frightening one, with bone spurts and strange new desires and an ever-widening sense of what it means to be alive. So too is their journey as revealed through the action of the film, one which leads them, by its end, to achieve a new moral and emotional maturity.

We can’t really talk about BYZANTIUM without bringing up director Neil Jordan, the man who gave vampires new cinematic life with his 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. That film dealt with the relationship between two men, one of whom reveled in his vampirism while the other saw it for the curse that it was. The film was steeped in the classic imagery, sweeping in its tragic romanticism and seemingly concerned most with spinning a bloody, thrilling yarn. But there is an emotional remove to that film, a distance between us and its frustrated, disaffected main characters who care only for themselves. Even when they do find someone beyond their own ego, they only end up destroying her. BYZANTIUM picks up from this dynamic, operating from the beginning with two characters who already have someone they care for beyond themselves and are now struggling to rediscover their independence. Yearnings for freedom are fueled equally by deep fear and an even deeper capacity to feel, despite trying so hard not too, these qualities fluttering about in them like so many trapped birds as they negotiate a new world and stake their place in it.

Scoring movies about young and cursed characters might be my Karmic lot! But I don’t complain about that, because the ones I get to work on are so lyrical. Eleanor from 'Byzantium' is an incarnation of a beautiful philosophical paradox, as she’s come of age during two hundred years! Vampirism goes far beyond horror. It brings the idea of immortality and, most often, the promise of love eternal. All of this requires lots of empathy, of romanticism. You may see a wolf man as a beast and consequently play just some beastly dissonance. But vampires deal with immortality. Music has to show some echoes of their transcendence. However, the price vampires have to pay to be immortal is feeding on other human beings’ blood, and that is where the horror comes onto the musical scene.
- Javier Navarrete

Alternatively armed and anchored by a poetic and heartfelt script somewhat marred by the aforementioned clunkiness of its (essential) backstory, Jordan goes for viciousness rather than scares, supplementing the film’s more visceral qualities with beautiful images and the heart that has increasingly infused many of his later films.  Nor is he alone in striking that balance, with Javier Navarrete’s haunting score a far cry from his classic work in PAN’S LABYRINTH. Discordant contemporary-style soundscapes mix with Victorian strings and piano that is as jarring as it is beautiful. Gemma Arterton turns in nuanced work that utterly convinces as both vampire and mother, while Saoirse Ronan takes the first subtle (yet altogether confident) steps in her own growth as a performer. Caleb Landry Jones, whose varied career includes X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and Brandon Cronenberg’s ANTIVIRAL, plays the archetype of the doomed waif seduced by the mystery and power of a strange force with quiet skill. underlying that his sensitivity with very human despair and simmering anger. 

And “human” really is the key word here, performance, score, and storytelling working together to tell a tale that is very much alive, present, and prescient. Echoing Chris Pine’s recent comments on WONDER WOMAN that having a woman directing that film leads to it having more compassion and love to compound the action, BYZANTIUM is all the better for how it is bound up in the idea that the strength to survive comes not from immortality, not from the power of being a predator or through controlling the classic Christian depictions of darkness, but through the (admittedly frightening) surrender to warmth and love.

And blood, of course.

Moira Buffini, the writer, is a real feminist and that's how she proposed it to me. There's this massive contradiction in the film in that my character, Clara, is a woman who sells her body and also ends up killing people she doesn't think are worthy of this world, such as pimps and rapists. So she uses her sexuality to do that. Moira used this line and I loved it: she said: 'It's more fuck you than fuck me.' But it's more complicated than that, because it's about what it is to be a single parent, and how hard that is and how brilliant you have to be as a person to get through it for 200 years. – Gemma Arterton

BEST SCENES: Two scenes for today. One showcases the film's atmosphere, while the other captures its (fittingly) theatrical sense of fun.

 

SEE IT: You can buy BYZANTIUM on Blu-Ray + DVD HERE!

PARTING SHOT: 

[Vampires are] not relevant at all, are they? They’re not relevant to anything, they’re just fantasies. If you think of vampires, they’re like these poor creatures that have been wandering through the sea, and have gathered all these crustaceans and shells, and you realise you don’t need half of this stuff. The only certain thing about them is that they live beyond the natural span and they survive by killing. Everything else... Do they live in daylight? Can you kill them with a stake through the heart? Can you see them in mirrors? I don’t know why they can’t be seen in mirrors, what the hell is that about? Why should a vampire not see himself in the mirror? The only piece we kept, if you think about the catechism of vampires, is that they have to be invited into a house, which is really sweet, I thought. They’re just waiting outside. ‘Come on in, then!’ And then you’re fucked!
- Neil Jordan

Extra Tidbit: For the curious, Chris Pine's full comment: “I think what’s really neat about it is that with all of the Thors and the Captain Kirks… I feel like with men at the helm, it’s always this kind of revenge cycle thing. It’s an eye for an eye, ‘We’re gonna go get the bad guys’ and the bad guys are defeated. What I think is really lovely having a woman at the helm of something like this is just by virtue of her being a woman there’s a great deal more compassion, love at the center of the story which for something as big as a film as this is going to be and with the kind of eyes that will watch it, I think it’s wonderful. The little bit we can do to inch this universe towards something not as aggressive and as violent as this world can be.”
Source: JoBlo

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