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Dinner & a Movie: Miso Ramen & “Byzantium”

Last night I made miso ramen with butternut squash and cabbage and Susan and I watched Neil Jordan’s Byzantium. Both were great.

photo-1The soup was a really lovely combination of flavors — the sweetness of the squash with the rich white miso flavor,  the cabbage  crunchy and just a little brown from the oven. Yum.

I made this recipe with udon noodles instead of ramen, because that’s what I was in the mood for, and added a poached egg on top just for kicks.

The whole thing was tasty, definitely a recipe I’d make again, but possibly the most revelatory part of this whole experience was the discovery it’s very easy to poach an egg in the microwave! I read this Bon Appetit microwave poaching tutorial very skeptically, particularly since the instructions are basically just “crack an egg in some water and microwave it”, but it worked really well. I think it may be time to learn how to make a proper Hollandaise.

After dinner, we watched Byzantium, which has been on my to-watch list for a long time, and Susan and I both agreed that we were sorry it’d taken us so long to see it.

This is, in many ways, my ideal sort of movie. It’s a supernatural story but it’s not strictly horror. It’s about powerful women working outside the established system. It’s atmospheric and beautifully shot. And it seamlessly interweaves past and present, dream and illusion and reality. What more could I ask for?

The situation of the characters isn’t much of a secret, but it unfolds in a way that is a pleasure to see, so I won’t spoil too much about it, but in short: Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Artertone) are a small family, immortals surviving on the fringes of society, living on the run. When they’re forced to leave the city they’ve been staying in, they return to the seaside town where their stories began, and their situation quickly becomes increasingly complicated — by love, death, and perhaps the most dangerous force of all, the truth about their past.

Storytelling plays a central role in Byzantium. Eleanor longs to tell the truth about herself, but she doesn’t fully comprehend the potentially fatal consequences that doing so may entail — in part because Clara, who is perfectly aware of how dangerous the truth can be, chooses to keep her secrets and has never told Eleanor about certain parts of her history. Clara lies to protect Eleanor, both to keep her safe and to preserve her innocence, because she cares for her, but ultimately it’s Eleanor’s innocence that puts them in danger. It’s about family histories especially, and the way what one generation can’t bear to remember comes to color how the next generation sees the world. In this way, Byzantium is not just about the lies we tell to obscure the truth and simultaneous fear of and desire to reveal that truth, but also about the way lies of omission can leave us vulnerable, as well.

Storytelling is also central to the formal conceit of the film. The film begins as a story told by Eleanor — she is writing out her life story on the page, narrating it to us in voiceover — but ultimately only Clara can fill in the gaps, and the moment when she steps in as narrator is both chilling and exhilarating.

The casting here is about as flawless as one could hope. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as Eleanor, but it’s Gemma Arterton who really stands out. She’s sensual and sinister and stunningly fearless as Clara, who knowingly trades on her sexuality for power and refuses to look back with regret. There are moments, as we see the character of Clara come into her own, where Arterton’s self-assurance and strength are almost preternatural, embodying a perfect mix of rage and wonder and delight. Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, and Tom Hollander also take excellent turns here, though their roles are comparatively small.

The last thing I’ll mention is the cinematography and score, which work together to create a startlingly beautiful gothic atmosphere. The seaside town of Hastings has a strong presence in the film, beautifully run-down, its long concrete promenades and stony beaches lit with the carnival glow of boardwalk neon. There’s a tension here between the natural world and the man-made — dewy fields of cabbages at dawn and murmurations of birds casting shapes on the sky presented in stark contrast to cold, impersonal council flats and hospitals. As Eleanor walks through town, she realizes that none of the buildings she’s passing existed when she was last there, but time can’t quite cover up the past, which keeps rising up to trouble her, memory seamlessly interpenetrating with the present. Sitting on the beach, she sees herself walking past as she once was, and hears the echo of the songs she used to sing. (The use of “The Coventry Carol” here is particularly eerie, along with a couple of other traditional songs and a haunting score by Javier Navarrete.)

I think what I liked best about Byzantium — besides the fact that it’s a gorgeous and unflinching feminist vampire story — is the way it embraces the wonderfully unreal as contiguous with the realities of the present day. The mysterious and arcane don’t disappear into the past, aren’t incompatible with modern-day logic. The unreal coexists with the real, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes painfully, but never in a way that suggests one is better than the other, or that one will win out over the other. And the truth, when it’s finally revealed, is more mysterious, more complicated, than anyone could expect.

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