From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, sex and sexuality have often provided the most central metaphor in vampire narratives. Given the recent vampire cultural kick, the notion that vampires reflect concerns and trends in sexuality has been analyzed somewhat ad nauseam over the past few years. Filmmaker Neil Jordan is obviously no stranger to this, with his 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire widely interpreted as a homoerotic allegory in the wake of the AIDs epidemic. As an auteur who is not afraid to occasionally wander into horror cinema, Jordan also understands the importance of society’s sexual hang-ups to the genre (see The Company of Wolves; no, seriously, see it; it’s excellent and not remembered nearly as much as it should be).
While Jordan’s most recent film, Byzantium, draws on his previous work in the genre, as a whole it is oddly desexualized. Teenager Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her companion Clara (Gemma Arterton) are forced to go on the run after Clara violently kills a mysterious man who appears at the club where she dances. They settle in a seaside village, though through flashback we learn it is not the first time they have been there. They are vampires of a sort, literally hundreds of years old, whose lives began in this very place. Desperate to tell her secret to someone she’s not about to dine on, Eleanor befriends Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), much to Clara’s dismay. As Eleanor’s attachment to Frank grows, more mysterious men, including Darvell (Sam Riley), pursue the two heroines.
On the surface, the film could play out as a typical narrative of teenage sexual awakening, as Eleanor’s growing interest in Frank causes her overprotective mother figure to cling to her and her daughter’s in-this-case-eternal attachment. But Jordan, for good reason, mostly skirts around this coming-of-age melodrama cliché through irony: these two are literally hundreds of years old, trapped in the ages when they turned (to use vampire culture’s parlance), so how can they come of age? It’s the type of self-awareness that the Twilight movies never stepped outside their own made up world for long enough to possess.
The notion of narrative self-construction becomes the replacement metaphor in this version of the vampire legend. Indeed, in Byzantium’s new mythology, the vampires literally create themselves by entering a cave and encountering a spiritual doppelganger. Eleanor’s need to disclose her past is literally a desire to shape her identity, by escaping from the cyclical Freudian mother-daughter drama that dominates her and Clara’s lives. There’s also a feminist bent to this, as the female vampires upset the male hierarchy by self-making, a form of reproduction that denies male sexual involvement. The man who “makes” Eleanor with Clara tries to take her away, but Clara is able to thwart his actions through her (literal) empowerment.
Although Jordan tries to steer the film towards a new narrative mythology, the effort ultimately falls short. Adapted by screenwriter Moira Buffini from her own stage play, the film could use more of a cinematic quality. For instance, the computer-generated special effect of a serene hillside that runs red with blood inserts itself awkwardly into the voiceover narration that drives the film. There’s nothing wrong with the tradition of oral storytelling this device draws upon, but for a film that consciously tries to push for new forms of narrative, Byzantium has an old-fashioned quality to it that proves stale.