Friday, September 30, 2011

CANON OF FILM: "BABETTE'S FEAST"

BABETTE’S FEAST (1987)

Director: Gabriel Axel
Screenplay: Gabriel Axel based on the short story by Isak Dinesen

As one watches "Babette's Feast," is doesn't seem completely clear at first at to what exactly is the point the film is trying to make. Is it an argument against self-denial as a way of appeasing God? I don’t think so. Is it in favor of cultural awareness and openness to the outside world? Maybe a little, but maybe not. Is it about the power of art and the inner workings of the artist’s sole? I lean towards the latter, but it’s a little of all these things, but most of all, “Babette’s Feast,” is an absolutely beautiful film. I’m not saying "beautiful"  in terms of lighting, by the way (Although it is lit well); when I talk of the beauty of this movie, I talk about it the same way I would discuss an epic love poem or a truly moving novel that has no wrong choice of words, no clichés, nothing but pure perfection. (The short story was written by Isak Dinesen, which was the pen name of Karen Blixen, who's life was the inspiration for Sydney Pollack's great film "Out of Africa.") Winner of the Foreign Language Oscar, “Babette’s Feast,” takes place off the coast of Denmark in a place called Sutland, where followers of a strict Lutheran minister who found his own church and years after his death, the townspeople still treat his words, sermons and his memory as thought he were still alive. He preached self-denial as the way towards salvation, and the area has become so remote, even by 1800s standards, that only a few outsiders of the world have ever been around. In the beginning of the film, we get to see two of those outsiders, one is well-known music coach (Jean-Philippe LaFont), and the other, I'll get to in a second. The town’s led by the two daughters of the minister, Martine and Filippa (Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer). One rainy night, a strikingly tall woman arrives on their doorstep with a note of recommendation from an old visitor. Babette’s (Stephane Audran) family has gotten caught in the middle of the French Civil War. She’s lost her son and husband, and has escaped from France. She asks to be the servant of the two sisters, and does it without pay. Years later, Babette finds out that she won 10,000 Francs in a lottery, and asks the sisters to prepare the dinner for their father’s 100th birthday celebration. At first, they think it’s something for her to do until she leaves and heads off back to France, until some of the, exotic and unusual ingredients come in. Fearing such goods, and their father’s devotion to self-denial, the sisters convince the towspeople not to discuss the food that she serves, and prey that any possible witchcraft effects are minor. An unexpected guest, a General (Jarl Kulle) who last visited years earlier, and the nephew of one of the oldest of the followers (Bibi Andersson) is unaware of agreed-upon procedure, and leads to some intriguing conversations exchanges during dinner. The feast of course is spectacular. The back of the cover of the film gives away Babette’s past as a famous French chef, but of course the townspeople don’t know that. It probably didn’t matter though, because up until the feast, they wouldn’t have any idea exactly what that meant. Except for the general who spent some time in Paris, and other places, and despite enjoying himself and the food immensely, wonders how someone could serve such extravagant courses that he knew of only one other person that made them, and how everyone could say nothing about it. It used to be said that artists were mediums for God, and that their works was that of God’s vision. (Back then, people had little interest in one’s own personal vision.) I think about that when I see “Babette’s Feast.” Especially at the end where there’s one more revelation for the sisters to learn about Babette. If it’s true that an artist is never poor, I wonder if that means that they’ve been touched by God? 
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