Vampires make a terrific horror subject because their mythos can serve so many different metaphors. The destructive folly of youth. The suppression of erotic desire. The surrender to bestial urges. The burden of living with insatiability. The price one must pay for power. How absolute power corrupts absolutely. But perhaps the most powerful of these is an angle often explored, but without much depth, and that is vampirism as a metaphor for suffering—the suffering we deserve, the suffering we don’t deserve, the suffering we accidentally inflict upon others, and the suffering we very much intend to inflict. And in that territory has come a stylish, chilling, brooding movie about vampires that defies many of their genre conventions and produces a work that gives vampires a greater sense of humanity than we are used to seeing. And that movie is Byzantium.
There are really two stories here. The first takes place in present-day Britain or Ireland (we’re never quite sure) , where Clara and her daughter Eleanor are a pair of vampires living under the radar. Eleanor is a perpetual teenager in body and spirit; at once painfully aware of her current condition while never ceasing to maintain a dreamlike relationship with what her future could one day become. Meanwhile, Clara is an unsentimental pragmatist who lives in the here and now, providing for her and Eleanor as a sex worker—which provides both cover in the human world as well as a decent source of food. But they are on the run from a vampire society called the Brethren for crimes we are not initially aware of, and when they take refuge in the dilapidated coastal Hotel Byzantium, they both know it is only a matter of time before they must face the reckoning that comes with their past. And that past is Byzantium’s second half, an extended origin story set in the early 19th century of how Clara and Eleanor became vampires. In it, we see how Clara’s life of injustice, hardship and abuse steered her toward her eternal condition as one of the undead. And we see how the collateral damage from Clara’s life is visited upon her daughter Eleanor, condemning her to the same fate. The more we see of Clara and Eleanor’s past, the more we understand their behavior in the present, and the more we realize that as the Brethren close in, the fight they get might be a whole lot more than the fight they are looking for.
The neat thing about Byzantium is its parallel structure of present-tell and flashback. It’s hardly a new narrative device, but here it does a great job of reminding us that vampire stories are really about dual-characters; characters who were once humans, and then became monsters. Most vampire movies give us a cursory look back at one’s vampiric beginning, preferring to dwell on who the vampire has become now. But Byzantium makes it as much a part of the proceedings as the unfolding plot. It’s something that only the audience and the vampires can appreciate; the rest of the world cannot. And in sharing so much of Clare and Eleanor’s past with us, Byzantium almost seems to invite them into their immortal lives more so than other vampires can.
Also of special interest here is how vampires might be incredibly old in this world, but we’d never now because with one exception, every vampire we meet is a first-generation vampire. One does not become a vampire by the usual device of being bitten by one. The process is rather different from all that, and is best left undescribed. Better simply to see it in all its disturbing splendor. But this portrayal almost renders vampirism as a kind of restricted commodity; were its source not kept secret, then almost anyone could become one. Anyone who is willing to die for it, that is.
And that is what makes this movie so interesting, apart from its cool tone and compelling characters. Vampires are—again, with one exception—creatures who have a say in what they have become. You really have to want to become a vampire in Byzantium, and when we see the how and why Clare embraces her new identity, we realize that for her it is as much a matter of emancipation as it is one of damnation. For Eleanor, whose choice in the matter isn’t quite so pronounced, that lack of decision seems to have a deep influence on her and how she manages to maintain a kind of innocence, and even a sense of goodness, despite her need to dine on the lives of others.
As we watch Clare live by an endless cascade of ruthless decision, Eleanor is a different creature. She is capable of mercy, selfless compassion and a curiosity about a world she is no longer really part of. As the pair inhabit Byzantium, it’s no mistake that their relationships with the men they meet there are so completely different; one is manipulative and predatory while the other is gentle and empathetic. In Clare’s defense, her behavior is a defense mechanism she has had to develop as a human and hone to a razor’s edge once she became a vampire. But the more we see her exhibit her survival skills, the more we see how she resents how her daughter never needed to do the same. It should be a testament to Clare’s mothering, to be honest. But instead it becomes just another reminder of how damned Clare has become, and just how much light still resides within Eleanor’s heart. The horror of vampirism is how it makes one forget what made their lost humanity so precious. Which is why the moment of truth is when Eleanor takes a fateful boat ride without her mother, which shows us that vampire or not, she has not forgotten her humanity. She has not forgotten love.