“Byzantium” and leaving the Bechdel Test in the Dust

*First published in The Stake

Back in the 90s, I was an angry goth teenager, fascinated by vampires long before they were on the CW. I trudged home from the library with folklore books, poring over tales of Romanian vampires while covertly smoking cloves behind the barn. Then, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire hit the screen and suddenly everyone was talking about vampires. Her dark buddy tale of Lestat and Louis introduced a new generation to the drama of gentleman vampires.

Two decades later the director of Interview with a Vampire, Neil Jordon, is back. He’s teamed up with writer Maria Buffini on Byzantium, a film that opens with the blood, gore and stripper clichés we’ve come to expect from vampire flicks but delivers something unexpected. Instead of yet another movie about two male vampires making it in the world, haunted by centuries of memories and surrounded by throw-away women, the film gives us two female vampires and explores the ties that bind them as they struggle to survive through the centuries.

Byzantium touches on a theme that’s rare for the genre: the silent masses of young girls destroyed and decimated by the sex trade. Picked up from the seashore as a naïve fifteen year old girl, Clara Webb is raped and forced into a life of prostitution, told by her abuser Captain Ruthven that she has found her life calling as a whore. This she accepts because there is little else to do. She has been kidnapped and shamed, degraded by a powerful man. These reasons, in the early 19th century, leave her trapped with little way out, just as they still do to women now.

Clara works the sex trade for years, eventually contracting tuberculosis. Her chance for escape comes when a comrade of Captain Ruthven’s visits him, offering the man a chance at eternal life. The film places Clara between them: she graces the dim light of the brothel’s billiard room, dressed in only shift and corset. The men forget her as soon as they fall into conversation; she is little more than a piece of furniture to them. The captain’s friend — Darvell — reveals he is immortal and intends to give this gift to Ruthven as well. When he leaves, Clara leaps to life, shooting Ruthven and stealing the secret for herself.

A prostitute stealing power, even immortality, from men is a sharp departure from centuries of vampire stories and decades of films. The story we know so well today, one of gentlemen with bloody appetites and few morals, had its origins in the early 19th century. Lord Byron, in a fit of rainy-day boredom, began a story about an aristocratic, manipulative and very odd man. Using Eastern European peasant folklore, Byron single handedly created the vampire that we know today: noble, wealthy and immortal. His story was only a fragment, but his physician John Polidori took it and crafted it into a short story. Byron’s vampire was named Darvell, but after a falling out with the poet, Polidori exacted his revenge by fashioning the monster after Byron. Polidori’s vampire, noble and handsome,became incredibly evil and manipulative. He named his creation Ruthven, and the story was a gigantic success.

Beyond the vampire genre, betrayal of innocence often serves as a backdrop for female characters. It’s used to explain why a woman is a psychotic bitch or manic pixie dream girl, or why the respectable male character loves his stripper girlfriend despite himself. She had it rough, after all, but she really has a heart of gold. Prostitutes and strippers litter film screens left and right, and if their back stories are ever mentioned (which is rare), you can bet it comes down to sad common tale of sexual betrayal as a child.

Gemma Arterton plays Clara beautifully. By turns heartless or endearing, Arterton and the movie slowly unwrap Clara’s complex history. Clara, in all her centuries, never moves beyond what Ruthven first defined her to be, a whore. Yet she uses this skill to survive and provide for herself and her daughter, Eleanor.

Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronin, is the opposite of dark-haired Clara. Frozen in time at sixteen years old, she carries sorrow on her sleeve, but there are moments when her finely wrought features and ice-blue eyes turn to stone. In a moment, her young woman’s face reveals the chill of centuries of lifeless living.

Eleanor spends most of her time along a pebbly shore, gazing out at sea rather than at the shabby resort town she and Clara have temporarily made home. She longs to share her life with someone and finds a companion in a young man, Frank (played by Caleb Landry Jones). Their sweet and awkward love story brings richness to a film that dwells so much on survival.

It is not till the end that the cold-hearted and ruthless Clara is revealed as the most powerful hero in the film. Marvel superheroes have nothing on her and her mother-rage. She is an obstinate survivor, completely committed to protecting her daughter, regardless of the cost.

So few films explore the complex stories of women. What begins with typical vampire packaging metamorphoses into a fierce love story between mother and daughter. In a world where few films pass the Bechdel Test’s light demands, Byzantium reveals how shallow our expectations have become. The idea of judging a film on whether women talk to each other, and discuss something besides men, becomes ludicrous and trite.

The young 90s goth that I was would have lingered over Byzantium as I sat behind the barn, library books in lap. Romanian vampires, Lestat, and Louis would each be considered and discarded. Clara and Eleanor would have remained, living beside me as I smoked my last remaining clove cigarette.

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