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06 March 2006

Babette's Feast (1987)

Stéphane Audran (Babette), Birgitte Federspiel (Old Martina), Bodil Kjer (Old Philippa), Jean-Philippe Lafont (Achille Papin)

Directed by Gabriel Axel

Language: Danish and French

From Hollywood Video: "A French refugee woman is hired by elderly Danes whose lives are narrowly focused by their strong religion. After years in their employ, the housemaid changes village attitudes through a sumptuous feast."

I watched this film on Saturday because I was supposed to attend the MOMS Movie Club this morning. Our club president, Nicole, made the selection. Unfortunately, the snow was quite daunting today and gave me the perfect excuse to stay home and catch up on the EIGHT loads of laundry awaiting my attention. I enjoyed the motivation to watch this movie, even if I didn't attend the discussion, because it is unlikely I would have ever seen it otherwise.

Based on the story by Karen Blixen - aka Isak Dinesen, the famous Danish writer whose memoirs were adapted as the film Out of Africa - Babette's Feast is a picture of cinematic understatement. Perhaps, when it comes to Danish filmmaking, Festen was not as innovative as it appeared to American audiences. Perhaps, the Dogme 95 school was simply reflecting as extreme example of a pre-existing aesthetic amongst Danish artists, one that emphasizes restraint, delicacy, piety, community, and a dark sense of humor.

The entire film builds toward the scene of the feast, during which the humor emerges in full force, but the remainder of the narrative struggles with deeper questions about the nature of faith. The sisters are devout, humble creatures of God, having forsaken all romantic connections in order to better ensure that their souls remain clean and their charitable acts meaningful.

However, their devotion is equally split between God and their own father, a church leader of such importance to their village that he becomes a sort of prophet and spiritual guide unto himself. Did they each refuse suitors in their youth because of a deep sense of Christian obligation or out of paternal devotion? They less feared God's judgment than their father's disappointment and disapproval.

The remaining handful of adherents to their father's isolated sect try to be as generous and faultless, but the sisters’ purity of heart is difficult to emulate and maintain. Petty squabbles about decidedly ungodly issues begin to seep into their discussions. One man cheated another, and one woman slept with a friend's husband... decades before. These irrepressible issues of mortal life - concerns of worldly jealousies and sin - cannot be left behind simply because they will themselves toward spirituality, just as they cannot ignore the heavenly bliss of Babette's cooking, the luxury of her table service, and the intoxicating effects of wine.

So what is God's will: that we should forsake all pleasures of this world in order to enter a better one or that we should enjoy the tastes of our mortal life because they are of God's creation? As the examples of this film illustrate, neither extreme guarantees happiness, contentment, or salvation. The only person truly pleased with her path, despite tremendous loss and humbling experiences, is Babette. She hardly eats a bite of her unbelievable feast, but the act of creation - bringing together those disparate people and nourishing them with her works of art - brought her closer to God in this life than any other character could achieve.

Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

She hardly eats a bite of her unbelievable feast, but the act of creation - bringing together those disparate people and nourishing them with her works of art - brought her closer to God in this life than any other character could achieve.
That's interesting.

First of all, because I don't cook, I've never thought of cooking as an act of creation -- though it certainly is!

Second, it puts a neat spin on the director's relationship to the audience. Is the filmmaker making something for our enjoyment and consumption, or he satisying his own (selfish) creative impulse? Should we even be watching Babette's Feast, or should we be making our own meals and films instead?

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

When she arrived as their housemaid, the sisters instructed Babette on how to make bread gruel, which was presented in a montage as just another one of the many chores for which she was responsible, along with washing the windows, serving tea, and cleaning up. She presented what was otherwise a daily chore as a symphony of possibility - and it scared the pee out of them! They thought they only had to guard against the sins of the flesh about which they knew. After she was finished with them, even food could be sinful! To her "audience" of devout souls who had never consumed anything other than fish and bread, the artist Babette was simply offering the idea that there was something else out there, both to create and to enjoy, which is the task of any good artist.

Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

It's amazing how the information contained in one review, or one paragraph -- or a single line! -- can affect the viewing, understanding, enjoyment of a film, or book, or album, or lasagna.

Whenever I see Babette's Feast, I think I'll appreciate it that little bit more, and get that same bit more out of it, because of your review.



NB: I'm looking forward to reading your opinions about Jarhead!


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