06 December 2010

FOOD OF THE GODS

Chris Walters included a list of possible reviews along with his Carry On Campaign donation, and I used the excuse to fill one of the more embarrassing holes in my film viewing history. My thanks to him for letting me cover my ass.

Remember after Out of Africa came out, how there was that huge Karen Blixen fad at the movies? Everybody trying to get a piece of that Blixen magic, and you could hardly walk into a multiplex without seeing three or four films based on her writing? No? Probably because it didn't actually happen: there were only two Blixen adaptations to come out in the next decade, both Danish: the hugely obscure TV movie Sorgagre, and the Oscar-winning costume drama Babette's Feast, but since both of those came out in 1987, the filthy cynic in me can't help but assume that Out of Africa helped serve as, let us say, an "inspiration" to the filmmakers.

That is the last time I shall mention Out of Africa in comparison to Babette's Feast, for while the American film is prestigious and pokey and fricking dull, the Danish picture is charming and winsome and intensely pleasant. One of those mainstream foreign movies that used to be able to make it huge in English-speaking countries because they were both unchallenging and good/not great in pretty much every manner of their creation, you know the ones. Some of which have aged not at all; but Babette's Feast, while unapologetically middlebrow, remains incredibly likable, soothing, and honest. Also, it is one of the most wholly successful food porn movies outside of Ratatouille, and I'm not going to pretend that I don't have a huge weakness for food porn.

In truth, the film is not "about" Babette's feast, however, nor even necessarily about Babette. It's rather to tricky say what is is about, in fact, other than itself. The film opens with a brief look inside the lives of a small community of strict Protestants (theoretically Lutherans, though a frightfully unyielding strain of Lutheranism if so), good-natured, happy people whose numbers are dwindling in the years after the death of the charismatic pastor who breathed life into this barren fishing village in the wastes on the Jutland coast. We've barely gotten to meet these folk before the quiet, relaxed narrator (Ghita Nørby) takes us back several decades, to 1836, when the pastor (Pouel Kern) still reigns in town, aided by his lovely young daughters Martine (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stensgaard). Never having considered a life beyond this minute existence, both girls are conflicted by the arrival of two men: the soldier Lorens Löwenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson), smitten with Martine, and French singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) who wants to make Philippa an international opera star, and his lover. Both mean leave the village unsatisfied, and the girls have their share of regret over the lost possibility, but other than a few shots that are quickly dispensed with, the movie never even suggests the possibility that this is ever going to be the story of repressed Puritan girls haunted by lost opportunities. In fact, when the film seamless glides 35 year into the future, we find that Martine (Birgitte Federspiel now) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) are perfectly happy living the simple life, keeping their father's memory, and holding court of his small congregation.

The 143-minute film does not break cleanly into thirds, but its close enough that it makes sense to discuss the story that way: the first third is the story of the girls deciding not to pursue romance and a new life, the second third, in 1871, observes the arrival of Babatte Hersant (Stéphane Audran), a political refugee from Paris who eagerly takes the unpaid position as the sisters' housekeeper, and the final third, in 1885, finds Babette asking her employers for the only favor of her career: having just won 10,000 francs in the Paris lottery, she wishes to prepare an elaborate French dinner in honor of their father's 100th birthday. Fearing that the lush richness of French food will run contrary to their cosy Puritanical ideals of food and drink (you should never enjoy either), the sisters and their congregation are alarmed at the prospect but... it's the only thing Babette has ever wanted, and she has brought so much good into the community.

The first hour of Babette's Feast is admirable if slight, a depiction of a long-extinct way of living that neither judges nor praises the harsh Protestantism on display, but simply takes it as a given and observes the characters living beneath it. Honestly, most of what works in the movie is Blixen's material, though writer-director Gabriel Axel made the wise choice to change Blixen's bustling Norwegian port to a hideously lonely Danish town in the middle of nowhere, the better to emphasise both the ruggedness and the isolation of the people. Without offering much editorial insight into its milieu, the film - clicking along at a fast pace despite its almost total lack of incident - simply allows the village and the villagers to wash over us, so that we've come to know the sense of the place rather well, even if the individual congregants remain just beyond reach.

While the first hour of the movie would be awfully good in a sleepy middlebrow way, it's the last act that gives Babette's Feast both its reputation and the bulk of the emotional heft. Babette - revealed to nobody's grand shock to be an exiled chef who was once considered the finest in France by the very man responsible for her exile - prepares a feast of inordinate craft and delicacy, and while the severe Danish Protestants begin in the firm conviction that they will enjoy this food no more than their usual boiled fish and ale bread, one by one they fall under the spell of haute cuisine, led by the now aged and dignified General Löwenhielm(Jarl Kulle), who insists that the sheer act of eating such a splendid and carefully-prepared meal is itself an act of tribute to a loving God.

In short, the film dramatises an experience which I think many of us have felt but not so many would admit to, because it sounds awfully silly: eating a meal as a religious experience. For Babette's Feast is nothing if not a story of finding religious ecstasy in a bowl of turtle soup, making it undoubtedly the warmest of all Scandinavian films about religion - the glacial spirit of Dreyer, both tonally and aesthetically, is far removed from Axel's loving, undemanding film, which gets most of its artistic heft from lingering shots on delicate foods that look about as appetising as any onscreen meal ever has. This is a shortcut, but a wholly legitimate one. It is necessary after all that we believe the excellence of Babette's feast is enough to crack the priggish shell of the congregation she serves, and long leering glamour shots more than get the job done.

This is only half of the story, though. If any character comes through as distinct, it is Babette herself, and the third act doubles as a tribute to cooking as artistic expression (needlessly and disappointingly explained in clear, small words by Babatte herself after the culmination of her meal). The kitchen scenes, with Babette and her young aide and the slightly boozy driver helping out, are as perfect a depiction as I've ever seen of the grace and joy of creating food, equalling with fervor if with less artistry the kitchen scenes in Ratatouille: not to get all braggy, but having cooked more than one fussy French meal in my day, there genuinely is a sense that one is singing in harmony with God, bringing from nothing a complex, mystical combination of sensory information. Babette's motivation for creating the feast is in its way the central mystery of the whole film, the crux of both its humanist and its spiritual arguments, and though it is not without some artistic deficiency (though I wonder: does calling Babette's Feast artistically deficient say more about the film, or the critic?), the film expresses that feeling, indescribable in words, of why some people would rather do nothing else with their life than rush around a hot kitchen, slowly bringing up one dish after another.

It's a simple film; a film whose entire purpose begins and ends with its evocation of religious ecstasy. But then, religious ecstasy, shorn of polemic in either direction, is a damned hard concept to put in a movie, and that is more or less what happens here. And I'm speaking as a resolute non-religious person, who nevertheless can respect and admire the film's commitment to presenting the ecstatic without comment, but with deep, heartwarming conviction. The film is simply lovely, and wants to be nothing more.

2 comments:

Robert Hamer said...

Great review as always. Can't wait to see my request show up!

Ian Fox said...

I would tend to agree with this review - the mise en scene is exquisitely managed from start to finish - but I take 2 strong messages only from the story. The religion practised in this village is arid and without joy of any kind. Once the cult figure has left (the father/pastor has died), the congregants slowly descend along an ultimately terminal decline, their interactions characterized mainly by petty jealousies and recriminations for wrongs real or imagined in a distant past. The second message, intended or not I don't really know, is the civilizing effect of alcohol. The fabulous meal was certainly a transformative factor in the moment but it was entirely aided and abetted by the free-flow of fine French wines in abundant quantity. For the rest, what meaning there may have been in the general's final speech was either too subtle or too vapid to warrant dwelling upon. One is left with the feeling the the feast will not have altered the decline of the village by much more than the rare freezing of the sea one distant Chrstmas passed.