In a desert of predictable young adult vampire romance, Byzantium is a refreshing oasis. It is a film directed by Neil Jordan and is based on Moira Buffini’s play A Vampire Story. In the opening scene the main character, Eleanor Web, played by the lovely Saoirse Ronan, is finishing writing a story which she then casts into the wind.
A recurring theme throughout Byzantium is Eleanor’s struggle with being unable to tell her story. She wants someone to know the truth, but it’s a secret she must hide forever. And for a vampire forever is a long time to keep a secret. Eleanor’s traveling companion and fellow vampire, Clara, allegedly her sister, is another vampire with secrets.
Clara and Eleanor are not your typical vampires. They don’t have fangs, and sunlight doesn’t harm them. We see Eleanor growing her nail longer when she wants to pierce a victim in order to feed. She is a gentle murderer, electing to kill those who are already suffering, old, dying, and wish for their pain to end. That’s a great choice for a vampire. If you have to kill, why not provide a euthanasia service?
These vampires depart from the traditional folklore in other, more mysterious ways, as well. To become a vampire in this story, one must go to a mysterious island, enter a magical cave, and meet the “nameless saint.” In the cave, you meet yourself.
Eleanor dreams of this meeting with herself. The other her kills her. This is how all the vampires become vampires in this story: “To live forever, you must be prepared to die.”
There is also a musical piece in the film that is hauntingly beautiful. Eleanor plays the Adagio in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 3, Opus 2. She says, when asked by another character, it took her “two hundred years” to learn. Actually, Saoirse has explained in some interviews that it took her eight weeks to learn the piece. (I tried to learn it myself. Having never played the piano before, I stopped after an hour when my musician roommate informed me I’d been playing all the wrong bass clef notes. It’s an incredibly difficult piece to learn if you’ve never played piano before. Go Soairse!) Even if you don’t watch the movie, which you should because it’s great, you should listen to this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EU0alisl60s
In this vampire story no female vampire had ever existed. Only males were brought to this cave, and they formed a brotherhood. Female vampires were never created, and never the creators. Until Clara. Her story is a typical tragic tale of poverty and desperation. As a human she was forced into prostitution. She had a daughter who she loved too much to kill and so she sent it to an orphanage, where she would continue to send money and watch her daughter grow up from a distance.
Clara was able to overcome her trauma and grow stronger. She seized the opportunity to change her life, and found the mysterious cave. The brotherhood admonished her for breaking their rules and did not welcome her into their order. Lonely, but stronger, Clara reclaimed her daughter and brought her to the island and the cave as well.
On the run from the brotherhood, Clara and Eleanor flee from town to town, starting their lives over time and time again. While Clara is able to throw away the past with each new town, it isn’t so easy for Eleanor. Even after two hundred years, Eleanor is still traumatized by her own past. It would be pretty terrible to live as a vampire if your past still haunts you.
The film certainly brings us a new vampire story. It’s the best vampire film I’ve seen lately, hands down. It’s an original, creative take on the vampire myth. And it’s a story with real and deep issues, not the adolescent melodrama we’ve been seeing. These characters are complex and interesting, and their relationships are It’s also wistful, and magical, and you should watch it and experience it too.