Vampires used to be elegant. Think of the classic caped figure gliding through smoky corridors paralyzing victims with only a glance. Theirs is a pure supernatural power derived from a potent cocktail of control and desire, where each movement is calculated, each decision motivated by instinctual survival. As late as the 1990s, the seductive nature of these creatures made Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire flamboyantly intense and Abel Ferrara's The Addiction deeply beguiling.
Of course Twilight happened and the Nosferatus of the silver screen gave way to faux-teenage heartthrobs who survived not on blood, but schmaltz. In a bit of striking irony, these new vampires were unforgivably toothless, a horrible byproduct of our PG-13 age. Luckily, with that simplistic genre franchise firmly in the rearview mirror, it seems like major filmmakers might once again be ready to embrace les vampires in an adult manner.
For proof, look no further than the sleek and moody thriller Byzantium— opening Friday, June 28, at Hillcrest Cinemas—a beautifully constructed spin on the vampire origin story also directed by Jordan and written by Moira Buffini, upon whose stage play A Vampire Story the film is based. Traversing between Victorian London and the modern day, the film weaves multiple time periods together with precision, following vampires Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) as they survive in very different bloodsucking ways on the fringes of society.
The film's delirious opening shots of London's urban sprawl dissolve into one another, oozing like neon watercolors dripping down the frame. This hyper-stylized look quickly transitions into a more classic style, in which Jordan's smooth visuals take on a ghostly and evocative vibe. Here, Eleanor's deep melancholy and Clara's swift brutality become more overt traits, establishing a strange mother-daughter dynamic even though the complexity of their relationship is often kept in the dark.
When a mysterious stranger threatens Eleanor and Clara's anonymity, the two relocate to a windswept coastal town that harbors dark secrets regarding their past. Clara quickly shacks up with an unsuspecting hotel owner for cover while Eleanor once again settles into a lonely existence with only the crashing waves and howling wind to keep her company. She begins having flashbacks that eerily parallel her current circumstances. What follows is a Rubik's Cube narrative that continuously jumps backward and forward, adding layers of conflict as more information spills out.
Eleanor's internal struggle stems from an inability to express herself to human beings. "My story can never be told," she says early on, instead opting to jot down her bloody and tortured history on pieces of paper before throwing them into the wind. Later, another character echoes her statement: "Everything outside of time is cold," suggesting that even those who can transcend old age are meant to suffer the numbing effects of emotional erosion.
The film also addresses a distinct gender battle. The female body is used in multiple ways throughout Byzantium—to seduce, to puncture and to create—but no matter the situation, these actions are always in response to threats made by institutions dominated by men, both living and undead.
If Byzantium descends into plot-driven excess during the final act, it manages to retain a haunting tonal identity despite some of the more reductive moments. Ronan and Arterton are superb at playing polar opposites forced to look past their youthful façades and recognize each other as old souls yearning to reconcile past indiscretions. Finally, the fantastic image of a waterfall turning blood red is breathtaking, a visual marker for the film's adoration for classic genre cinema and all its detailed elegance.