“Byzantium”and “Let The Right One In”: European Vampire movies confronting monstrosity

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“In the modern world, movies provide the myths we use to interpret our lives and cinemas are the camp-fires around which we gather to pass on lessons and legends.”

This quote from Dr Albert Gunner snagged my imagination (for anyone struggling to place Dr Gunner, he’s not a real academic but the fictional therapist’s therapist played by Peter MacNicol in “Necessary Roughness” – if anything, that adds to the appeal of this quote for me).

I gather around a lot of camp-fires and I’m particularly fascinated by the many re-shapings of the myths concerning vampires that we use to help us understand our fears and our desires.

In recent years, movies, TV series and books like: “Twilight”, “Trueblood”, “Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs”,  and “Moonlight” have been building an image of a world where Vampires are different than humans but in an exciting, sexy way. They sparkle in the sunlight. With a few bottles of synth-blood and a little self-control, we could all live together in a stylish, sexually charged, occasionally violent but almost normal way. The message is that Vampires are not fundamentally monstrous.

I enjoy this point of view. It’s almost heart-warming to think that there are nice Vampires out there, I just haven’t met them yet. It gives me a way of dealing with difference and working past taboos and exploring what I might like to become if I wasn’t so intransigently human. But these versions of the myths don’t give me that camp-fire thrill of the dangerous and the unknowable. They don’t tell me what my fears mean, they just convince me that I have nothing at all to fear.

By contrast, some of the movies coming out of Europe confront the nature of monstrosity head-on.  Their message is that if Vampires are like us, it is only because we too can be monstrous.

I was reminded of this when I saw “Byzantium” recently. It grabbed hold of my imagination and dragged me through what it might mean to live forever by preying on others.

That got me thinking about other movies that have had this kind of impact on me. The one that stands out is a Swedish film called “Let The Right One In”.

I recommend both of them to you. See them together and  I think you’ll have sat around a camp fire you’ll remember for a long time.

If you don’t know these movies then take a look at the my mini reviews below. I’ve also embedded the original trailers.

Byzantium: loneliness, grief, self-hatred, hunger and love

byzantium collage

Neil Jordan directs this beautiful and compelling film about survival, grief, loneliness and misogyny. The movie opens with Eleanor, a schoolgirl, writing avidly in an exercise book and then tearing out what she has written and throwing the pages from the window of her council flat. In voice-over Eleanor says: “My story can never be told. I write it over and over, wherever we find shelter. I write of what I cannot speak: the truth. I write all I know of it, then I throw the pages to the wind.”

The rest of the film, set mostly in modern-day Hastings, a coastal town in England, but with flashbacks to earlier times, sets out to tell Eleanor’s truth and to confront its consequences.

Eleanor and her mother are more than two hundred years old. They feed off the life-force of others. They are being hunted by men who live the same way but who believe that for women to do so is an abomination.

Saoirse Ronan is haunting as Eleanor the woman who is eternally a girl and eternally at war with her own nature. Gemma Arterton, plays Clara, Eleanor’s mother, a strong-minded woman, abused and sold into sexual slavery as a child, who remained strong enough to seize an opportunity to take back her life and become immortal, only to find that Eleanor, the only person she really loves, has been made to pay a terrible price for her mother’s actions.

The film centres around the different ways in which Eleanor and Clara deal with who they have become and what they must do and the guilt and grief that colours the love they have for each other.

There is a lot of action in the film but the power of it comes from slow, beautifully filmed scenes, that show the workings of Eleanor’s mind as she loses herself playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 2, a piece she has been practicing for two hundred years and which seems to capture her sorrow and her hope.

Eleanor sees herself as a monster. Clara sees herself as someone doing whatever is necessary to survive. Yet the true monsters of the this story are the men who hate these woman and want to obliterate them.  Perhaps the worst of these is Ruthven, chillingly played by Jonny Lee Miller  who first drags Clara into prostitution and later rapes Eleanor to infect her with the disease that is killing him, throwing out the taunt “welcome to a long slow painful death, whore”.

After Clara steals the opportunity to become immortal, she is confronted by the “Brotherhood” of immortals. When asked about her history she says, “I was a harlot.” Darvell, who is trying to champion her says, “but that is in the past.” only to have the truly scary Savella say “some things are eternal”.

In this film we learn that living forever condemns us to be eternally who we are. What makes us monster, what keeps us isolated from others and locked away from love and hope is our refusal to acknowledge that.

Byzantium trailer

Let The Right One In: monstrous hunger and honest love

Let the Right One In Collage

“Let The Right One In” is the story of Oskar, a twelve-year old boy too much alone and with a thirst for violent revenge against the boys who bully him, letting Eli, a girl who appears out of the night and helps him deal with the bullies, into his heart. It is a story of fragile love but it is not a Disney rights of passage movie where good is guaranteed to triumph. This is more subtle, more real and much, much darker. The story set in the dark, bleak winter of of Stockholm suburb that is stalked by a brutal serial killer who desanguinates his victims. It is stark, beautiful and compelling tale that drags us into the shadows where good is hard to find and shows us that love and hunger can make monsters of the best of us.

Even with subtitles, the dialog grips the imagination, as much for what it does not say. Here is an example

Oskar: Are you a vampire?

Eli: I live off blood… Yes.

Oskar: Are you… dead?

Eli: No. Can’t you tell?

Oskar: But… Are you old?

Eli: I’m twelve. But I’ve been twelve for a long time.

Lina Leandersson plays Eli with a haunting gentleness that is never quite innocent and never quite wicked. Her eyes say more in a few seconds than most scripts manage in minutes.

This is a vampire movie that follows all the “rules” (unlike “Byzantium” where the vampires have nothing to fear from daylight) and yet somehow produces something new. It is frightening not because of the blood and gore (although that is done with merciless realism) but because it shows us that our choices can make us all monsters and that perhaps the least monstrous are those who have no choice. Here’s some dialogue that sums that up. It takes place after Oskar has acted out sticking a knife into the boys who bully him and making them squeal like pigs:

Oskar: Who are you?

Eli: I’m like you.

Oskar: What do you mean?

Eli: [accusing tone] What are you staring at? Well?

Eli: Are you looking at me?

Eli: [points her finger at Oskar] So scream! Squeal!

Eli: Those were the first words I heard you say.

Oskar: I don’t kill people.

Eli: No, but you’d like to. If you could… To get revenge. Right?

Oskar: Yes.

Eli: Oskar, I do it because I have to.

Eli: Be me, for a while.

[pause]

Eli: Please Oskar… Be me, for a little while.

Perhaps that “Be me, for a little while” is the opportunity all our camp-fire stories offer.

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