Film in Oxford: 5th – 11th July

Modern Hollywood seems to be increasingly preoccupied with the apocalyptic and the undead. Numerous films from the past year have gleefully obsessed over the end of the world (The World’s End, This Is The End), zombies (Warm Bodies, World War Z) and vampires (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Dark Shadows). Byzantium (Ultimate Picture Palace, from 5th July), the latest film from director Neil Jordan, falls into the last of these categories. The modern vampire, introduced by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel Dracula, has been reimagined countless times in recent decades, from Twilight’s moody romantic Edward Cullen to Let the Right One In’s ambiguously childlike Eli. Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire (adapted into a 1994 film also directed by Jordan) showed that vampires could be more than heartless bloodsuckers by emphasising their human side, an approach that has since become commonplace. Vampires have problems too, whether guilt, isolation, or sexual longing, and this sub-genre offers an alternative perspective on such human issues.

Byzantium tells the tale of Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), 200-year-old vampires that are seeking sanctuary in a seaside hotel. Having ‘stolen’ the secret to eternal life during the Napoleonic Wars, the pair have been doomed to a life of seclusion and fear as they are hunted by the male vampire brotherhood. Clara turns the hotel into a makeshift brothel which she uses to ensnare victims, exploiting her own sexuality to exact revenge upon men. Eleanor is more merciful, killing only those that are already close to death. Eleanor befriends a terminally ill boy (played by Caleb Landry Jones), and there are certainly parallels to the friendship between Oskar and Eli in Let the Right One In [2008] here. In both cases the boy is pale, weak and vulnerable, and the vampire faces an inner struggle between the protection they wish to provide and the instinct for blood that they rely on for survival.

Byzantium self-consciously situates itself within Stoker’s vampire tradition. Beyond the gothic resonances, the run-down seaside town (Hastings) in which Byzantium is set immediately recalls Dracula’s Whitby, and Jordan draws several parallels to earlier filmic precedents. Clara’s clothing, for example, is evidently allusive to the classic Hammer films, and in one scene she is even seen watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness [1966] on television. Buffini offers an alternative perspective to this tradition, however, and a feminist agenda can be clearly identified. The vampire brotherhood is exclusive and gender-discriminatory, and prostitution and male hegemony are common themes throughout the film. Clara and Eleanor are frequent victims of patriarchy, as Jordan himself has remarked. Like many contemporary vampire films, Byzantium combines the horror and action of Dracula with social commentary, in an attempt to uncover the ugliness of reality.

Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be partially credited for vampires’ recent popularisation, but (unlike Jordan) Whedon has left the genre far behind to experiment with others. Whedon has proved his filmmaking prowess over the past decade in an extraordinary range of styles, from sci-fi (Serenity2005) and meta-horror (The Cabin in the Woods, 2012) to Hollywood blockbusters (The Avengers Assemble2012) and an internet mini-series (Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). Much Ado About Nothing, his latest contribution to the big screen, is all the more remarkable considering that it was filmed in only twelve days during an obligatory break from the post production for The Avengers. Much Ado can be seen as something of a pet project: Whedon adapted, produced, directed, and edited the film as well as composing the score. The film was even set at Whedon’s Californian mansion home, reflecting the single-house focus of Shakespeare’s play.

The plot is barely altered from the original Shakespeare. In short, Claudio and Benedick return home from war, and attempt to win the hearts of Hero and her cousin Beatrice respectively. There are notable differences here though: Conrade’s gender is switched, and Benedick and Beatrice are portrayed as already being romantically linked. The setting of the film at Whedon’s home more or less necessitates the presence of modern technology (security cameras, phones and cars), but the Elizabethan English language remains. The choice to film in black-and-white performs several functions: it accentuates the dialogue; creates a classy atmosphere suitable for Whedon; and harks back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Themes that the film grapples with include love, behaviour, expectations and sexuality.

The enormous critical success of The Artist [2010] opened up new commercial potential for French cinema, and the marketing of Populaire (Ultimate Picture Palace, from 5th July) as ‘Mad Men meets The Artist’ capitalises upon this. Populaire is set in 1958, and its protagonist is Rose Pamphyle, a young, clumsy secretary. Despite lacking other secretarial skills, she is a superb typist, and her boss is determined to transform her into a world speed typing champion. The apparent similarities with Mad Men are presumably the 50s setting and the misogynistic office environment, though Populaire is not quite as concerned with satire. There are, however, many notable parallels with The Artist: both films share a star (Bérénice Bejo) and a cinematographer (Guillaume Schiffman); both play as homages to American cinema of the past, embracing 1920s black-and-white and 1950s Technicolor aesthetics respectively; both directly reference Hitchcock’s Vertigo; and both deftly observe the hairstyles and clothes of the age that they imitate and celebrate. Another French film showing this week is Renoir (2012, Phoenix), which tells the story of Andrée Heuschling (later known as Catherine Hessling), a muse to both Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his son Jean, who would later become a renowned film director.

This week the Malmaison hotel rooftop cinema will be screening high-school comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [1986] (Friday 5th); Italian drama Cinema Paradiso [1988] (Saturday 6th); and Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski [1969] (Thursday 11th). There are several films discussed in previous columns that are still showing: Before Midnight (Phoenix); Behind the Candelabra (Phoenix); and The Great Gatsby (UPP and Odeon Magdalen St). Please check the website links below for further film listings.

J. Wadsworth

The day of showing is given for a film when there is only one screening from the 5th-11th July; all other films mentioned will be screened at least twice during this time. Any cinema listings given were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change or cancellation. All films were released in 2013 unless stated otherwise.

For up-to-date listings and to book tickets please follow these links: Phoenix PicturehouseUltimate Picture PalaceOdeon George StOdeon Magdalen StMalmaison Rooftop Cinema. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at theoxfordculturereview@gmail.com

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