Welcome to “Byzantium”

We’re pleased to share another guest blog by the ever popular Damien Shalley. He introduces himself here:

Damien Shalley sometimes confuses armadillos with peccadilloes, usually when he’s had too much Tempranillo.  He wishes that Kanye West would just come out of his shell a little.  If he was a rapper, he’d call himself “Daddy Cruel”. He would like to thank whoever invented yoga pants.  He would not like to thank whoever invented Pimento Loaf.   He knows who the real Slim Shady is, but he’ll never tell.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Bear Skin, please don’t hesitate to email me at jennifer@bearskin.org


Welcome to “Byzantium”

by Damien Shalley

(for ‘Josie’)


Byzantium was an ancient city founded by the Greeks, the origins of which are shrouded in legend.  A wealthy city at the nexus of Asian-European trade, it was conquered by the Romans (who called it Constantinople), and conquered again by the Ottoman Turks, who made it the capital of their empire.  Today it is called Istanbul and vestiges of its’ ancient power and forgotten glories remain.  It is a city that has existed throughout modernity; a city that has seen prosperity, a city that has seen blood and violence, a city that has seen the vicissitudes of existence.

Perhaps that is why Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”, “Interview with the Vampire”, “Ondine”) chose Byzantium as the name of his 2012 vampire film, starring the beguiling Gemma Arterton and talented Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan.  Jordan examines the time-worn, desolate existence of a mother and daughter vampire duo living part of their hope-free eternity at the Byzantium guesthouse in a desolate English seaside town.  The central theme of this film is emptiness – the infinite emptiness resulting from perpetual exclusion from salvation.  Jordan shows us convincingly – and in gloriously lush style – that the true fate of a vampire is isolation from everything that is good.  This isn’t the famous Ms. Meyer’s “Twighlight”. (Thankfully).


Jordan’s film has been described as a meditation on family, life, love and death.  It is all of those things and more, wrapped up in stylish visuals and a well-known concept with appeal to audiences.  Gemma Arterton plays Clara, a mysterious, hardworking lady of the evening (literally).  She is on the lamb, running from mysterious men whose role in the proceedings becomes clearer as the film progresses.  Clara is provided with information by one of her clients about a run-down old seaside guesthouse called the “Byzantium” which she decides might be a safe (and productive) home base.  Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, Clara’s daughter, a particularly “unsweet” 16 year old with a somewhat philosophical bent, who enrols in a local school after moving to her new coastal home,  and who mortifies her teachers with a writing assignment detailing her centuries of existence and her need to prey on unsuspecting souls to survive.  Together, the two women work in tandem to defeat (or temporarily deny) the goal of their pursuers.  As the film progresses, we are witness to flashbacks which flesh out the story and offer insight into the two women and their current predicament at the “guesthouse at the end of the world”.

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There is a mournful aspect to these women – their relationship features many familiar mother-daughter dynamics, and Clara genuinely loves Eleanor – but ultimately they are both doomed.  Eleanor has a thoughtful disposition and dispatches her victims with a sense of melancholy.  She also feels a certain disdain for her mother’s more “scattershot” approach to predation.   The more experienced Clara has weathered centuries of interactions with humanity and is much less conscientious about her victims.  The two women are inseparable though, due to their family bond and their condition.  Love knows no boundaries, even for the undead.

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The screenplay for “Byzantium” was written by Moira Buffini, adapting her successful play “A Vampire Story” for movie audiences.  Her work examines the lonely routine of the vampire and the very un-“Twilight” concept that there is nothing glamorous about vampirism.  Director Jordan takes this concept further by examining what being a vampire actually means.  Jordan’s vampires are soulless entities relegated to a tiresome earthly existence of perpetual feeding on the gullible.  They are creatures who can experience no true satisfaction despite living through the ages and knowing all that this world contains.  They are ultimately condemned to an eternity excluded from God, and what’s worse, they know this all too well.  Their efforts on this mortal coil will all amount to nothing, and at the end of time salvation will elude them.  In the meantime, they must go through the motions in order to live through another night.  They will experience both good and bad in all its forms, build existences only to see them crumble, enjoy wealth and power then watch it disappear and be constantly reminded of the perpetual “veil of tears” that summarises earthly existence.  Just like the ancient city Byzantium.


Some critics have suggested that his film is not particularly insightful and is ultimately nothing more than a reworking of a story we’ve seen many times before, presented in a visually beautiful way.  “Byzantium” also pitches to commercial audiences by offering a quotient of exploitable elements; blood, beauty and seductive glamour.  (Well, this is still a vampire movie after all). Jordan’s concept of an empty eternity for the soulless nightstalkers he showcases has been described as somewhat superficial.  More cynical observers have suggested that the beauty of the cast and the elegant photography might prevent some viewers from acknowledging that aspects of the film are somewhat “half-baked”. It has been noted on more than one occasion by critics that there is a certain lack of substance to the women’s back story and that their tale really doesn’t justify two hours of screen time.  The flashbacks to their past are probably the least interesting parts of the film, although they do offer some understanding as to why the women find themselves in their modern day predicament.  Has Jordan presented a compelling narrative? Decide for yourself.


Director Jordan has on more than one occasion been accused of dwelling on beauty in a somewhat lascivious manner, “overplaying his hand” as a director, as it were.  There might be some validity to this criticism.  Whether this is good or bad is up to the individual viewer.  He has also been accused of “popularising” serious subject matter – he turned Angela Carter’s screenplay for his early film effort “The Company of Wolves” (a re-examination of the original Charles Perrault “Little Red Riding Hood” tale) into a strangely dream-like B-grade horror movie packed with sensual imagery that confounds critics to this day.  Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor character is sometimes presented in “Byzantium” as a red-hooded “innocent” with the innate potential to destroy any “wolves” who may pursue her, and this concept appears to be a “through line” in much of Jordan’s work.


The conundrum that Byzantium” presents is that whilst the glamour aspect of vampirism is downplayed (philosophically, at least), the film is so beautiful to look at that it is entirely possible audiences will miss this very point.  Jordan presents creatures that rely on the abuse of all that is good – honesty, integrity, attraction and love – creatures that will happily prey on the undeserving.  They exploit the weakest link in order to maintain a godless and ultimately hopeless earthly existence.  Jordan offers viewers vampires as soulless creatures – predatory animals – and  nasty ones at that.  His vampires are beautiful and seductive, though – the eternal trap for the unsuspecting.  These kittens have claws.

Jordan has taken an uncommon approach to this type of tale.  In modern pop culture, vampires are synonymous with elegance, glamour, stylish living and eternal life.  “Byzantium” takes a closer look at the vampire narrative and uncovers a bleakness and hopelessness that is, for the most part overlooked in modern cinema.  Warner Herzog’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” went quite a way towards revealing the “truth” behind the vampire concept – his vampire is a creature of pity, condemned to an opportunistic existence preying on strangers, a lonely creature ugly in both appearance and purpose, a creature whose eternal fate has already been sealed and who must now remorselessly destroy the innocent in order to survive until the next sunset.  Nobody would suggest that “Byzantium” is even remotely equal to Herzog’s classic, but there is a definite similarity of purpose between the two films.  Critic Max Nelson, (“Byzantium”, Film Comment, June 25, 2013) offered this perceptive comment about the movie.

“…in the film’s longest flashback: teenaged Clara escapes the brothel where she’s been forced to live and work, sails to the same island that her daughter will visit a couple hundred years later, and, after making herself immortal, bathes with wild, joyful abandon in a torrential downpour of blood. It’s an unsettling take on the Christian redemption narrative: a victim of the worst possible injustices is washed clean in blood and given eternal life—only, at least at this point, the eternal life in question looks a lot more like Hell than Heaven.”

This seems to summarise director Jordan’s intent in perfect economy of words.  For those who appreciate this perspective, Byzantium will be a worthwhile viewing experience.

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Neil Jordan Filmography


TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: Actress Gemma Arterton, director Neil Jordan and actress Saoirse Ronan of "Byzantium" pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

BOND GIRL GEMMA IS SEXY MOVIE VAMP Actress Gemma Arterton ( Quantum of Solace ) gets her teeth into her new horror movie Byzantium. The 27-year-old actress stars as Clara, a vampire who has to protect herself and her daughter (played by Saoirse Ronan) from those seeking to plunge a stake through their hearts. Picture Mother and daughter: Gemma Arterton with Saoirse Ronan 74018 EDITORIAL USE ONLY

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Into the Woods

The latest Disney holiday release, “Into the Woods” is interestingly, not a children’s film at all but rather an exploration of contemporary philosophical themes.

Written by Stephen Sondheim,  “Into the Woods”  initially debuted on stage in San Francisco in 1986 and since has won several Tony Awards, and toured globally. Despite its mature themes, in 2014, Disney pictures released a star studded version directed by a Rob Marshall to great critical and commercial success.

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The point of the musical seems less to entertain and beguile children, but rather to make a forary into post-modern thought. Admittedly, it does so lightheartedly and with flair.

Step one, de-sanitise the tale, return it to its gruesome original state and juxtapose it with other tales.


The musical tells the interweaving tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Bean Stalk and the characters sing and dance their way through the narrative with charming ease. Retainin the gruesome elements of the original Grimm’s tales means the ugly sisters chop of toes to fit shoes, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf [and promptly revived by the gallant baker and his knife], and Rapunzel is banished to a swamp by the witch who has blinded her lover.

Step two, explore what happens after the characters attain their wishes, the post- “happily ever after”.


Once each character receives their wishes, and “happily ever after,” the narrative explores their subsequent unravelling. Cinderella’s Prince is adulterous, Jack’s giant ramgaes through the country in search of her lost harp and hen, key characters die off. Each of the characters begins to blame the other for the chaos.  The story moves from fairy tale into solemn reality……. things don’t always work out the way we think they will. The witch cautions them all to question their wishes, that each of them contributed to the demise by what they desired.

Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you

Perhaps the most profound lines come in the closing song:

Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

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Step three: Redefine the very notion of knowing and meaning.


The characters chant to each other:

Wrong things, right things…

Who can say what’s true?…

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.

You decide what’s right you decide what’s good

The story closes with half the fairy story characters dead or disappeared, and the remaining few, huddled together in the woods, to hear the story from the beginning. They are adrift in a world without certain meaning and outcomes and must define meaning for themselves together. The find comfort in each other and not in the narratives they have imagined.

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So what?


Doctor of Philosophy and Catholic commentator, Taylor Marshall in his blog review,  labels the story “pernicious” and outlines the philosophic nominalism evident in the narrative. For him, the moralism evident in which the characters are cautioned to make their own reality, is deceptive. Instead, he cautions that in fact “rationalism” and discovery of “what is” is in fact the fittest form of human endeavour. As sojourners here, our job is to discover the world, it’s rules and paradigms, the order that God has placed and to abide by this order. http://taylormarshall.com/2014/12/into-the-woods-movie-a-dads-critical-review.html

I find his reasoning misses the mark.

Fairy stories have always been ground for phillsophical and theological debate – rich with imagery they naturally speak to the dream and the psyche. They play an important role in our subconscious development. It’s important to know that you can overcome the giant. It’s important to know that while there is wickedness in the world, that goodness still prevails. It’s important to know that love saves and that goodness is redemptive.

However, fairy stories, for their simplicity, can be oppressive too.  Is wickedness so black and white? is the witch always wrong  or is she a person too with a story to understand? Should girls be waiting for a prince or there is there another narrative girls can listen to? Does a requited love story always bestow the end of all unhappiness upon a girl or boy? Can our wishes for wealth, greener pastures, beauty and so on – lead us into more trouble than we know?

“Story is a spell and we should be careful what we tell,  because children listen” !!

Definitely !!

“Be careful what you wish, wishes are children, they come true”.

Absolutely !!

There is ground to question the narratives we absorb year after year. However, what “Into the Woods” shows us is that by dissolving meaning, we dissolve the grounds for narrative itself. The characters cannot ascertain whether the giant is “good” or “bad” and so slay her out of their immediate need. The cling to each other in the woods, a community adrift finding solace, and meaning  in each other.

The true end point of post-modern thought is absurdism. There is no more story to tell because there is no meaning to speak of. We’re just “Waiting for Godot.”

Instead of deciding this,  I would urge the characters of these fairy stories, to not define their own meaning but instead to break out of the story they are trapped within to find a GREATER story and a GREATER meaning. If we as readers find tales we read too limiting in moralism, in their two dimensional villains and stereotypical endings, we need to read MORE narrative, and absorb MORE and broader definitions of meaning, not less.

Narrative by nature, says something, and asserts meaning. Meaning is required for crisis and catharsis. Without these we have no stories to tell, no songs to sing.

Stories are wishes, wishes are children, we should be careful what story we wish, what spell we tell, because children believe them, because they come true. The stories we listen to define us and our perspective on the world. What we believe, we become.

I know a story where the wishes of the two protagonists, unravel the whole of human history requiring a promised hero to save them, a king, a prince to arrive and deliver them. This story covers thousands of years and weaves its way through civilsations and empires and finds itself in a regional outpost, a backwater, where a young man from a country village gives his life up for his nation. And saves the world.

That is a GREAT story.