Babette's Feast (1987)
This is the first selection for a Movie of the Week club starting up over at the Filmspotting forum. A Best Foreign Film Oscar winner from Denmark, it is a strange little work. It had a certain unnatural aspect in the dialogue/performances. It felt like it was just jamming character designs out as rough sketches. And yet, there was something kind of fascinating about the film.
At its base, this film seems to be making some sort of comparison between an austere, puritan Protestantism and a more hedonistic Catholicism. And all the main characters, by choice or by chance, are forced to forego their passion. Filippa's passion is singing, Martine and Lorens share a mutually unfulfilled romance, she favoring God and he favoring the military. Babette enters the picture, having fled violence in France, leaving behind her own passion. There is this tradeoff between passion or some grander purpose; between fidelity to God or fidelity to one's heart. One of the best little bits of acting came when Fillippa hears a bit of music after having held off and you can see this longing sadness in her eyes.
This all kind of builds toward the titular feast. This is not a film to watch hungry. I must say it does a good job showing why Scandinavia is not known for its cuisine. In this case there is an active denial, on behalf of religion, of any sense of enjoyment of food and drink. So what you see are the most basic dishes to provide nourishment. Then you compare to the French food of the feast. I'm not entirely sure how much of the food I'd actually eat, the prep scenes have me about as queasy as it has the film's characters frightful. And yet once served it has a wonderful appeal to it.
And the effect of the meal is kind of interesting. In resisting the meal initially the congregants were finally united after an earlier scene where their self-repression seemed to have been causing them to retain resentments. And after uniting against the meal, actually eating the meal seemed to finally open them up. This ultimately was Babette's big gift (and we find out just how big it was). This compares to the pious sort of benevolence that the sisters showed. It was more outward and showy in its charity. It seemed like the whole film was acting as a rebuttal against a certain proudly ascetic Christianity in favor of a more unrestrained but modestly helpful version. To the degree that it actually pits Catholicism against Protestantism, it might actually be considered vaguely offensive. Still, I was so entranced by the entire back half of the film and it serves the message well enough so I say bravo.
A few questions for discussion:
How do people feel about the heavy use of voice-over early on, though it seems to fade away eventually?
The sisters mention that because of Babette's arrival, they are now making more money than they did. It never seems to be explained how they make money, just from collections? I suppose the increase was a result of Babette's superior cooking/bartering skills?
Related to that last point, I loved the reaction of the one guy to the sister's prep while Babette was off. He'd become accustomed to her food and was like "yuck." No one likes a choosy beggar!
Oh, and I too can now have awkwardly written reviews based on the fact that they have a broader (blog) audience in mind.