Sunday, February 9, 2014

Women in Horror: Byzantium

Clara and her daughter Eleanor constantly move from place to place, finally ending up in a sleepy coastal town. Noel meets them by chance and allows them to stay in his recently inherited, but dilapidated hotel Byzantium. Clara starts up a brothel in the hotel to get by while Eleanor sullenly writes and mopes. Eleanor befriends Frank, a sickly local boy, and tells him her deepest, darkest secret: that she and Clara are 200 year old vampires on the run from the Brotherhood, the vampire council that has labelled them abominations. As their story circulates the town, all sorts of unwanted attention plagues the two women from both humans and vampires.

Byzantium is a fresh, feminist take on vampires and stands out in the face of an oversaturated genre. The vampire mythology is markedly different than usual. Blood is still their source of sustenance and an invitation is necessary to enter someone's home, but the sun, garlic, and crosses have no adverse effects. Without fangs, they rely on retractable and incredibly sharp nails. Their history is also quite different. Instead of random bands of loner vampires as is typical, this film features the Brotherhood, a glorified boys club of undead, that decide what is and isn't allowed and enforces those rules. The organization is rigidly unchanging, only making a small allowance to allow Clara to live when she joined their ranks. However, she was clearly labeling her as an outsider and an outcast without the same rights and privileges as the rest of the Brotherhood because of her gender. One of those rights denied her is that of creation, which is incredibly ironic. It calls to mind other real life forums of men deciding what women can and can't do involving reproduction. These men are the villains of the film and hunt Clara and Eleanor for being abominations by virtue of their gender and reproductive choices.

Clara and Eleanor are vastly different women trying to maintain their independence. Clara is fiery, sexual, and independent. Throughout history, Clara has been working as a sex worker to support herself and Eleanor. At first, she was forced into prostitution by a man who raped her. The 19th century held no support or agency for such women. Not even the law protected her and she was damned to suffer abuse her entire life and die at a young age. After giving birth to Eleanor, Clara works tirelessly to give her education and opportunities so she won't suffer the same fate. Then she contracts tuberculosis along the way. When all hope seemed to be lost, she stole from her abusers and took immortality for herself, going against the societal expectations of her time. Afterwards, she chose to be a sex worker in part to support her family, but also to help and protect other sex workers so they can work on their own terms without abuse. She takes that role she was forced into as a child and turns it into one of empowerment. When asked by the Brotherhood what she will do with her power, Clara responds "To bring justice to those who prey on the weak and to curb the power of men." Clara chooses to feed upon those abusers and victimizers who more metaphorically feed on the weak and vulnerable.

Eleanor is much more introspective and quiet. Every place they move, she writes their history and then throws the papers to the wind. Very similar to Louis de Pointe du Lac from Interview with the Vampire, she focuses on examining and reliving the past and is a mite overdramatic and whiny. Like Clara, she makes conscious choices about her feeding habits, opting to feed on the extremely old and close to death. Even though she's over 200 years old, she still acts like a teenager and rebels against her mother by telling humans about their story and generally getting them into a lot of trouble. She befriends a fellow surly, depressed teenager named Frank and confides completely and truthfully in him, causing the aforementioned trouble. Eleanor and Clara have been in a stagnant relationship for 200 years with no change in their dynamic despite all the time that has passed. Eleanor is tired of the lies, the prostitution, and acting like a regular human teenager she appears to be. At the end of the film, Clara realizes this and sets Eleanor free with directions to the place of creation so she can journey forward in her life, form her own relationships, and choose how she wants to live.

Byzantium is a feminist film at its core, but makes an effort to differentiate men from the evil patriarchal Brotherhood. Many men are portrayed who are decent human beings. Noel welcomes Eleanor and Clara to live in his abandoned hotel and seems like a sweet person going through grief after his mother died. Frank is an nice if odd young man who makes a real connection with Eleanor. Darvell. although a member of the Brotherhood, defects when he executes the leader instead of Clara as he was charged to. He has a mind of his own and chooses to reject the Brotherhood's policies and mindset.

Byzantium is a fantastic film that portrays feminist ideals with an interesting, nuanced story. Gemma Arterton and Saorise Ronan impressively portray Clara and Eleanor and their complex relationship. Even though obviously frustrated with each other, they still love each other and will fight to protect each other. The portrayal of men is varied instead of the one dimensional one used in most films like this, differentiating between systematic patriarchy and men. This film is well made, beautifully shot, and much different than most in the vampire genre. Highly recommended.

My rating: 8/10 fishmuffins

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