By Brian Lafferty
June 28, 2013 (San Diego) – Neil Jordan’s Byzantium is cinema’s best answer to the Twilight series since Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire masterpiece Let the Right One In (not counting Matt Reeves’ equally crafted American remake Let Me In). It takes the now all-too-familiar forbidden vampire-mortal love story and breathes into it an intoxicating mix of realism, atmosphere, and wicked sexiness.
Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) and Gemma Arterton are Eleanor and Clara, vampires on the run from mysterious men in business suits hunting them down for reasons that are slowly spelled out in flashbacks. They settle into a run-down coastal town rife with teenage prostitution and druggies. Clara, a prostitute herself, runs a brothel at her newest lover’s (Daniel Mays) ramshackle hotel. Eleanor, a teenager, meets and falls in love with the frequently ill Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). The feeling is mutual, but Eleanor is burdened by her secret, which Clara orders her to keep lest she have to kill to protect their identities.
Jordan’s second vampire movie – he helmed Interview with the Vampire almost twenty years ago – is rated R, but it offers an infinitely more meaningful and satisfying cinematic experience for teenagers than Twilight. A mitigating factor in my abandonment of the franchise after the second film was the relationship between Bella and Edward. Imagine a film shrouded in moody surroundings and menacing darkness, yet driven by a relationship as realistic, treacly, and unintentionally funny as Silver Spoons and other squeaky clean 1980s sitcoms.
I remember when I experienced the feelings of love for the first time as a teenager. It hit me like a shot. My hormones raged and battered my last remaining vestiges of childhood innocence not unlike a tsunami pounds a dying seaside village. I didn’t know what to do, how to act, or how to keep these new feelings in check. Somehow, I learned. It wasn’t easy, though.
Now get an image of those torrents of emotions in your mind. Now imagine the person experiencing these feelings is a vampire who is doomed to eternal life and cannot tell anyone her secret. The other person is a teenage boy constantly sick, has never had anyone, and at times would rather be dead. When all of that is factored in, the resultant mental picture precisely describes the feelings these characters encounter in both each other and themselves. Their chemistry is a teenage fantasy of sorts, but the big difference here is it’s dark, twisted, and mature.
For the adult crowd, Jordan and writer Moira Buffini apply a thick layer of eroticism. Gemma Arterton is an actress I wouldn’t necessarily expect to play a seductress with such a violent and kinky streak. Her eyes and lips are magnets; I couldn’t look away. Her voice is as temptingly seductive as a Siren. Even when she walks, it’s an invitation to leer because the way she moves her body – even in little ways – is so damn alluring. It's no wonder she's able to easily pick off men one by one.
Neil Jordan’s use of blood is yet another ingredient in a compelling cinematic mixture. Less than ten minutes in or so, Clara is chased down by a mysterious man in a business suit. She takes him to her hotel room. She seduces the man, employing sultry body movements and her aforementioned soft, tempting voice to put him at ease. Then she decapitates him. The look on Eleanor’s face as Frank bleeds profusely from his wrist following a bike crash is haunting. After seeing nobody’s watching, she dabs a bit of the blood on her finger, then eats it. She relishes it but feels a little guilty.
Filmed mostly at night, Sean Bobbitt’s photography is both something out of a dream and something out of a nightmare. The cool colors and soft shadowy lighting perfectly complement the eroticism, never overpowering it.
Byzantium is a vampire movie, but the potent, mesmerizing, enveloping spell it casts is straight out of witchcraft. This is not the first Neil Jordan film that’s had this kind of effect on me. The Crying Game, one of my absolute all-time favorites, was gripping from end to end (even though I knew the big secret beforehand). It began as a hostage film, evolved into a most unusual love story, before finally turning into a political thriller. Ondine, a tale of a mysterious woman rescued by an Irish fisherman (Colin Farrell) who may be a Selkie (a mythical shapeshifter in Irish folklore that takes the form of a seal in water and human on land). It was one of the highlights of 2010. I don’t say this about just any filmmaker I like, but I say it here because this guy is a special talent: I will now watch anything Neil Jordan makes without hesitation.
Byzantium is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest.
An IFC Films release. Director: Neil Jordan. Screenplay: Moira Buffini. Original Music: Javier Navarrete. Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays, and Caleb Landry Jones. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated R.