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.
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 this 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.
The first update to 100-something Movies You Should Watch If You Like Movies (raising it to 120-something movies) should be coming soon, and by soon I mean sometime in the next month or two. For all I know, by then we may have another 11 Simply Lovely Radiohead Songs to Drink Tea and Philosophize To, as they’re also rumored have another album coming out soon, which is to say that no man knows the day or the hour the new list will see the light. As for the 2015 film recap, I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever get around to finishing it, but if I do it’ll probably be in the summertime, when the livin’s easy and I’m not pretending to care about calligraphy or ten different conceptions of the Dao, all of which agree that the Dao is unknowable. I find it much more pleasurable writing about movies I either loved or hated than about movies which only lulled me to boredom.