Vanity. Vanity. All Is Vanity: Babette's Feast (1987)
The period piece is a genre that I always approach with a considerable amount of hesitance, which is a surprise considering that I absolutely adore everything about Downton Abbey and would probably come around on most any other Masterpiece theater production I undertook. I am rather certain that a lot of my uncertainty is grounded within the very theatrical, costumed and rigid nature of the style. My review of Anna Karenina made careful note of the manner in which the narrative styling and cinematic set-up counters the tradition of the period piece. The Scandinavian classic Babette’s Feast is, undoubtedly, entrenched within the tradition of the period piece and is heavily influenced by a commentary on the nature of religion, making it quite similar to one of my favorite directors Carl Theodor Dreyer. I will admit that I would never have undertaken a viewing of this movie, were it not for my research surrounding food in film, but I am more than glad to have engaged with this work, because not only is it beautifully composed, poetically written and simply cinematic, but it has opened me up to the world of period pieces done correctly and I cannot wait to engage with the genre full scale in the upcoming months. Babette’s Feast is both an incredibly intense consideration of the role selfishness and vanity play into an individuals existence, as well as a reminder that even in the most distinct of philosophies and national barriers things like good music and beautiful music can help to unify any group. It is also noteworthy that the film deeply considers the nature of femininity as it relates to a variety of oppressions and the rather creative manner in which many women navigated such issues and obstacles. Yet, one of the major elements that seems to create a visually striking and unconventional film with Gabriele Axel's particular period piece, is that it is so dismissive of temporal and spatial constraints as to almost be experimental in its grandiosity, matching beautifully with its questions of religion and self-identity in a way truly and unequivocally transcendent. Suffice to say, Babette's Feast is a cinematic revelation and yet again a remind that not all films from the 80's find themselves shrouded by the showiness of the era.
Babette's Feast, does indeed have a character named Babette (Stephane Audran) and while she certainly plays considerably into the plot, especially in its back half, she is rather irrelevant to the front portion of the narrative. The film focuses primarily on two sisters, Martine (Birgitte Fiederspiel) and Phillippa (Bodil Kjer) whohave lived into old age within the same provincial village in Denmark. Viewers are led to believe that they have spent much of their life locked on the island as a direct result of their father possessing them as his own, mostly as a result of his religious believes, but seemingly out of a sense of protection, especially since it appears as though their mother has long been forgotten. The knowledge that the father refuses to allow either to marry does not go unacknowledged, in fact, many townsfolk attempt to ignore this provocation and ask, always with failed results. Two figures attempts factor in prominently, firstly in the haphazard and a bit goofy soldier General Lowenhielm (Jarl Kulle) who makes an offer for one of the daughters, only to be rejected leading him to spill his life into his work in the military, using his learned "piety" from the time with the daughters and their father to his advantage, even securing and economically viable, as much as it is political marriage. The second suitor Achille Papin (Jean-Phillip LaFont) stumbles upon the family after hearing Phillipa sing at church, instantly becoming infatuated with the diva like quality of her voice. He asks for permission of her father to train her in singing, something she initially agrees to although, when he realizes the sexual implications of such requests, he demands that Papin remove his services and return to Paris. The narrative then flashes forward considerably and the much older Phillipa and Martine receive Babette at their doorstep, with a note explaining that she is Papin's daughter and wishes nothing more than to serve as a cook to the elderly women. Although the women explain that they can offer no money, Babette agrees to work for free, eventually bringing the old ladies more money than before, which is, ultimately, topped off by her winning the lottery. Babette as a gift, wishes nothing more than to cook a dinner for the parish in celebration of their late father, begging to cook a great French meal. The sisters are hesitant, but agree to let Babette have this one wish, and she blows all of her winnings on the lavish meal, even inviting General Lowenhielm to return. The dinner complete with rich food and drink serves as a unifier and a breaking of enforced conformity over decades of silence. The silence is broken though, not through words, but through subtle expressions and actions. Babette reveals that she was once a cook at a lavish French restaurant and that the sister's allowing her to enjoy her artistic past was greater than any gift imaginable and all those involved seem quick to agree.
Babette's Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film the year it was entered and deservedly so, considering that if an American based society is to identify a singular film to represent the entirety of foreign cinema, Babette's Feast is certainly a deserved candidate in its transnational nature. In fact, Babette's Feast, while very much a film about the beauty of a singular shared experience, via a feast, is also a consideration of border crossing. This, of course, happens in very literal terms with the heavy amount of traveling done throughout the film, but can also find itself manifesting in a variety of different manners. For example, the notion of a spiritual being crossing even invisible borders is a though professed by the sisters' father and a theme that seems prescient throughout the film. While the characters seem to share distinctly different views of the world, they, nonetheless, seem similarly affected by a large entity, we can call it God in the context of this film, but its essence in some instances moves the villagers to sublime internal remembrance, while in other cases it causes characters to consider their entire existence, as Lowenhielm existentially considers his own vain life, perhaps serving as the main factor in his decision to return for the dinner. Borders are also crossed in a gendered sense, although not in the performative element of somebody like Judith Butler. Instead, gender identities are a very fixed thing, however, the roles they can perform in society seem less strict. For example, both the sisters manage to take the place of their father as spiritual advisors for their community, and while they do not don the dress of a religious figure their status is, nonetheless, tantamount to such associations. In a similar context, Babette's role as a cook may seem heavily domesticated and, exists in such a state up until the final feast, but with her willingness to throw caution to the wind in the French oriented menu and the revelation that she has been in charge of a restaurant certainly makes a viewer reconceptualize each gendered performance in the film, even by male figures like Papin and Lowenhielm, which become far less "masculine" in a sense.
Key Scene: Sure the feast takes up a better third of the movie, but it is both grand and simple and serves as an extended and poetic scene and one of the best uses of food as metaphor I have seen to date.
This is a Hulu offering via the folks at Criterion. I can only hope for a future bluray release, but until then this should work perfectly.