Monday, April 4, 2016

"Byzantium" – Gaining the World and Losing One's Soul

Handsomely crafted religious horror, Neil Jordan's Byzantium draws on the vampire's fallen condition to deride humans' misplaced faith in their own righteousness.

The following is an essay I wrote for a class entitled “Religion and Film” and have slightly tweaked since then to mitigate BS and better match the voice of these Files. In hindsight I wish I had focused more on the cinematic qualities of this underseen vampire flick, but there’s only so much one can do when writing a paper overnight and fighting off sleep. Yes, even the Author sleeps. This is why almost no one sees him outside during daylight.

Get it? Because he’s a writer.

In the middle of 2013, director Neil Jordan and writer Moira Buffini attempted to resurrect an element that’s more or less been lying dormant in mainstream vampire lore, that being a moral conscience and concern with the price of immortality. In contrast to the majority of today’s vampire features, which either glamorize the undead or follow their parasitical lifestyles with an apathetic gaze, Byzantium paints the dilemma of the “soucriant” in bold moral hues and properly restores the legacy of the vampire as a creature of unmitigated, unredeemed evil. Beyond that, though, it uses the vampire’s metaphorical condition to lampoon the folly of real humans’ misplaced faith in their own righteousness, unequivocally denouncing the rejection of moral absolutes and materialism with an intelligence and humility uncommon in monster movies. Byzantium is handsomely crafted horror, with rich photography, a nonlinear narrative, and appropriately eerie music, but it’s also a thinking person’s parable, which is even more impressive.

The film follows Clara, a 200-year-old vampire who seduces her victims as a prostitute, and her daughter Eleanor as they flee an ancient order of vampires set upon cleansing the earth of both of them. The women differ in the targets they single out, the former preying on horny young men, the latter on elderly people already on the brink of death, but mirror each other in that both try to justify their vampirism as socially beneficial, just, or even merciful. Clara, scarred by years of involuntary service in a brothel and harboring a deep distrust or loathing of those who would take advantage of her, kills to “punish those who prey on the weak” and “to curb the power of men”, while Ella weakly tries to excuse her exploitation of the old on the basis that some of them really want to die and she’s really doing them a favor.

Byzantium leaves no question regarding the dishonesty of both characters’ pretensions. Clara is depicted as the physical aggressor in all the scenes of foiled lovemaking, and sometimes she slaughters men who haven’t made any advances on her or on her daughter. If exacting justice on the most rapacious scum of humankind were truly her aim, she would be showing far more discretion than she does, and would be doing so without recruiting a harem of desperate women off the street. But as we see throughout Byzantium, the presumptive reasons Clara makes up for murdering her victims—protecting Ella or punishing the powerful—serve no purpose other than to console herself for choosing an irredeemable path, one she believes will bring her everlasting comfort. Relying on steady, objective takes to film the rising action, Jordan graphically conveys the horrific price of taking another person’s life, in contrast to films like the Christian Purity satire Teeth (also great in its own way), which made the heroine’s vengeful mutilation of treacherous males look ridiculous and well-deserved under the circumstances. Byzantium makes no such room for moral ambiguity, and takes a truly unabashed stand against the spiritual decay wrought by Feminazism.

Clara’s violent actions and words at the beginning of the film might lead one to believe her the brasher and more ruthless of the two vampire outcasts. It’s easy to abhor her when she’s tearing into the throat of some unlucky man on the beach, or when she’s prattling on and on to Ella about the prospect of “making some money”, as if she’s supporting her family through a wholly respectable, even virtuous line of work. Eleanor twice describes her immortal situation as a burden, wryly introducing Clara as “my savior, my burden, my muse”.

But Jordan could just as easily be using Ella’s cynical narration to highlight her personal despair and delusion of morality. Isn’t it also human nature to compare one’s moral stature with the record of everyone else, to try to determine who’s the biggest burden of them all? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but isn’t it reassuring to think that someone else has sinned just a little bit more than oneself? Ella derides her mother as ruthless, uncompassionate, and a pathological liar, but like so many of us, she’s so fixated on the speck in Clara’s eye that she fails to notice the giant log in her own eye. As the story progresses, it comes to light that neither character is basically good, and the older vampire’s evil only overshadows the evil of the younger. In reality, the woman Byzantium initially offers as the most humane and loving character may turn out to be the most conflicted, hypocritical player in the story.

Ella too believes she’s merely killing for a valuable cause, which somehow exonerates her of the guilt of having killed anyone at all. When confronted with her chosen lifestyle by a friend who’s ailing from leukemia, she responds, “I never [kill]… People have to consent. They have to want.” Thus she masks her selfish craving for a longer life as a charitable desire to assist those who’ve given up all hope and want to peaceably end their lives. “Sometimes it releases people,” she continues lamely, though she’s clearly shifted to a defensive tone and seems to know the absurdity of what she’s saying. “So you’re moral,” her friend says bluntly, trying to finish her logic. “No. I’m ruthless,” she retorts, and resumes her furious piano playing clearly perturbed by the admission.

The conversation mocks the relativism that pervades the modern current of secular humanism, an ideology that purports to defend the “rights” of all living things but simultaneously endorses euthanasia and abortion and reduces the morality of all actions to the petty concept of “consent”. Buffini reminds us of this travesty in a flashback to Eleanor’s forbidden birth within the brothel; here her narration reminds us: “The day you are born is the day you are most likely to be murdered. More human souls are killed by mothers' hands, than by the hands of strangers.”

This is more of an aside, though, in a film that mostly concerns the possibility of right or wrong outside of God—or if not God, then some universal Natural Law. Byzantium posits that such a morality, deriving from humanity’s fallen nature and self-interest, is no morality at all, being subject to the transient whims of whoever subscribes to it. All the vampires in the film think or at the very least claim themselves to be forces of justice and righteousness, but all the actions that we see of them are motivated either by self-preservation or by resentment towards lesser beings. Even Eleanor succumbs to her baser passions for revenge, or so we’re meant to infer from a scene in which she menaces a school teacher who doesn’t believe that she’s a vampire. Much though the characters would like to practice grace and charity, those virtues are a mystery to their hearts, enslaved as they are to a perpetual cycle of sin that is the cost of immortality. “Forgiveness is a Christian value,” intones Darvell, a newly risen vampire of the ancient Brotherhood, which another vampire tokens “the pointed nails of justice”. Without the mercy of Christ, the characters are forever doomed to a cold subsistence on the flesh and blood of man, which, never filling, only abates the unstoppable approach of their just extinction.

At times Byzantium verbally equates the transformation into vampirism with selling one’s soul to further enjoy the pleasures of the world. “I rose and saw with different eyes,” says Darvell recounting his first minutes as one of the monsters. “Everything I looked on was a source of wonder. But… my soul was lost. The price of my existence is this sacrifice… Mine is a cruel existence… Eternal life will only come to those prepared to die.” But eternal life in the world of Byzantium has nothing to do with salvation in heaven; rather, eternal life is a curse inflicted on those who were vain enough to say that they knew better than God where life should begin and end, on those who strove so desperately to keep this world that they surrendered their very spirit to remain in it.

There’s a double meaning in Darvell’s quote: on one hand, Clara and Ella have forsaken eternal life by trying so hard to retain it, but on the other hand they’ve willingly purchased eternal life on earth by allowing their souls to perish. And that’s the most horrific fate one can imagine.

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