Babette’s Feast (1987)

I love fairy tales where we know conspicuously that we are being told a story. They can be delivered by Peter Falk in The Princess Bride, Edward Everett Horton in Fractured Fair Tales, or in this case, Ghita Norby.

Let it be said that there’s something inherently peaceful about the rhythms of Babette’s Feast. We meet two sisters devoted to simple acts of charity and good works generally living a simple life of tranquility.

Years prior they grew up on the right and left hand of their father, who was a local preacher, beloved by all in their little community of thatched roofs and decent folk. They are a world away from French courtesans and the social elite of the age. In this regard, the movie’s set design runs the gamut from a puritan-like asceticism to ornate interiors worthy of 19-century royalty. One of these outsiders is a young soldier (Gudmar Wivesson).

Riding upon his steed, he’s taken by one of the daughters, Martine, so angelic with golden hair and scintillating eyes. He’s never seen someone so glorious. And so he joins their little commune, all gathered around the table. Yet he is not made for their life and so he takes his leave to return to the world he knows — a world less harsh and cruel to the senses. His friends tease him for being defeated by some long-faced sectarians, but if it is a defeat, then it is one that stays with him.

He is not the only one. The Jutlands conquers others too… Next arrives an exuberant barrel-chested French baritone. He’s revered and fawned over by all the literati (including Bibi Andersson), but it is in this little town where he finds someone who makes his heart sing. It’s the minister’s other daughter Filippa.

The jovial Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) requests the honor to help train up the young lady and refine her vocal talents. It’s hardly a pretense as his tutelage is inspired and brimming with impassioned vigor. It’s contagious. But he too fades away. The devoted daughter recognizes her father would never approve of anything further.

And so years passed, their father died, and the two women, still unmarried, shepherd and care for their local parish. We can make allowances — time progresses and is condensed so easily because, again, we are working within the parameters of a kind of parable or fairy tale.

Intuitively it becomes a kind of rumination on aging and what that means — not just for to pious spinsters — but also how our joys and the manner in which we conduct our days become affected. Are they injected with renewed vigor or the kind of enervating melancholy that builds up almost imperceptibly so we just come to accept eour plight with passivity?

The population of their community is aging as well, and with it comes a schism of bickering and discord within the ranks of the disciples. The sisters look on with wide-eyed bewilderment. Surely this is not what they worked so hard to cultivate in their father’s absence.

However, the sisters also gained a housekeeper in the form of Babette, a French woman seeking asylum and recommended at the behest of an old friend. Stephane Audran is starkly different than my memories of her in Claude Chabrol’s work or the representation of vacuity of the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Here she is a saint gifted with a hand for cooking and a generous heart. She can be a blessing to these people.

It takes some time to recognize what the film is doing — what magic spell it’s casting. The sisters have a meager vision of cobbling together a modest supper to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their little congregation’s founder, but Babette requests to throw a banquet. She’s set on the idea so the sisters acquiesce.

The whole town is agog when her procession of goods comes imported from France: qual, turtle, and wine of all things! They are wary of being exposed to potentially dangerous forces in the form of such decadent food and drink, and so they form a pact with their small clan to not speak a word about these provisions.

It also strikes one as a tactic to avoid any unwanted gossip because suddenly it becomes another arena for “good Christian virtue” to play out. They are too blind to see an alabaster jar of perfume being poured out on the feet of a guest. In other words, they are out of step with the moment.  It’s not hard to detect Biblical underpinnings.

Babette’s Feast is somehow a movie drenched in the rhetoric and messages of Ecclesiastes. A graying soldier (Jarl Kulle), who we know must be vaguely familiar, looks into a mirror solemnly and says, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” It puts words to a life spent striving after things all for naught.

It’s also easy to conjure up the words “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!” The parishioners don’t live in this manner, and yet if this picture’s ending is any indication maybe a certain amount of uninhibited joy is a balm and not simply a cursed reminder of how transient and finite our lives are. Could it be, if we flip the paradigm, that a feast is not simply a coping tactic, a way to muddle through this life, but it’s actually a sign or a foretaste of something better?

This act of radical extravagance at the hands of Babette is not to be taken only in a literal sense. It’s not a moral prerogative about how to spend one’s funds, but this parable points to something else of vital importance. Because the table setting is so foreign to these folks — it’s so ornate — the food equally rich and extravagant.

Is it a waste — such rich food lavished on people who don’t appreciate it? These are my immediate reactions. I’m no foodie, but this is not the point. For Babbette, it is an act of love, and to have even one person — the general — appreciate her toilings is reward enough.

The look of incredulousness and utter admiration for each new course and subsequent drink is something to relish. His face lights up like it hasn’t for a long, long time. Can I state the obvious and say it is a joy to watch these people eat — living vicariously through the experience set before them? And something contagious comes over all of us (audience included). The meal seems to have powers beyond mere food and drink.

Of course, this isn’t the end. It has greater import than she could ever imagine. The memories come flooding out as the gathering becomes a kind of conduit for community. Nothing overtly supernatural occurs, and yet it feels like no less of a miracle all thanks to Babette. The sisters realize it too and marvel at her talents with gratitude. Filippa joyously affirms her, “This is not the end Babette. In paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.”

Her words can’t help but remind me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” Tolkien was of course well-versed in the creation and appreciation of fairy stories, but in this particular short story, he highlights a middling man who spends his whole life painting a leaf. His name just about sums up his existence. He’s never satisfied, never can quite see the whole picture, and never accomplishes enough to finish what he started.

And then he dies…It sounds like a paltry existence, and yet when he gets to the other side, he sees the full glory and the magnificence of the tree his leaf was a part of. Suddenly his preceding life gained more meaning, not less.

If we are to believe Babette’s Feast, Tolkien, and fairy tales, then this is not the end. There is a happy ending still to come. Herein lies one of the lasting potencies of this brand of stories. They tap into our deepest longings in youth and even as we grow older, I would be remiss to say that we didn’t still want them to become true. Let’s hope we’ll get to feast on the plenteous bounty of the likes of Babette someday soon. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

5/5 Stars

The Hunt (2012)

The_Hunt_(2012_film)One lie. That’s all it takes to completely decimate one person’s life. Out of the mouth of babes can oft come gems, but also deadly slander that leads to public scandal and personal destruction. In a small Danish village that’s what happens to Lucas (Mads Mikkelson), a sympathetic kindergarten teacher, who generally cares for his kids, while he tries to maintain a relationship with his teenage son Marcus, who is the casualty of divorce. It’s not easy for Lucas either, but he finds solace in his work and the companionship of his coworker Nadja, who moves in with him. On top of that, he is well-liked in his community which includes his close friend Theo, who has a son and a little girl Klara — dearly fond of Lucas’s dog Fanny.

But in one instant Klara makes the life of her adult friend a living hell. In a moment of confusion, she makes a confession to her teacher. Both surprised and worried, the information sends all sorts of alarms off in Grethe’s head and Lucas is relieved of his position quickly. Next, Klara’s parents are brought in and soon the rest of the community is let in on the troubling news. The following contradictory statements brought forth by Klara are quickly dismissed. After all, she has been thoroughly traumatized by Lucas. He’s arrested but finally released because the testimonies of the children do not add up. Still, he’s now labeled as a sexual predator and ostracized by everyone. His former friends have turned against him, and he is no longer welcome in the local grocery store.

The only place he can turn is his friend Bruun, who does not abandon him, as well as his son Marcus. That does not do any good for faithful Fanny as the witch hunt continues.  The sequence of events has the Christmas holiday as its backdrop, and it seems like peace on earth and goodwill towards men need not apply to Lucas. In one potent moment, the solemn outcast wanders into Church for service, only to be forced to sit in a pew all alone. There gathered around him are all the people who have destroyed his life. All the people who professed to be his friends, and yet quickly turned on him.

His response is uncalled for perhaps, but certainly not unwarranted. Theo is deeply affected and it only takes listening to the listless whisperings of his little girl to know that Lucas is innocent. They make peace on Christmas day and things die down.

Time passes. Lucas is happy. He’s back with Nadja. Marcus is about to get his rite of passage as a hunter. Everyone’s friends again. But still, there’s something not quite right. In the final moments, the motif of a hunt takes on a deeper meaning. The drama has all but subsided and yet it still lingers. Lucas is still being hunted even if it’s only in his dreams.

After the Wedding gave me tremendous respect for Mads Mikkelson as an actor, and The Hunt only solidified that conviction. He is facially so recognizable and expressive. Not exactly a handsome face, but there is a raw beauty to it, and it is wonderful for expressing a broad spectrum of temperaments. It can be an evil mug or a sympathetic face revealing layers of anguish. In many ways, it’s a great enigma, so reserved and yet so emotive. Thomas Vinterberg’s bare-boned film rides on Mikkelson’s shoulders, and he is able to carry the weight brilliantly.

4/5 Stars

After The Wedding (2006)

After_the_WeddingThere is a scene in After the Wedding where the new bride Anna gets up and announces that it’s not usually customary for a bride to give a toast, but something is bound to go wrong at some point, so she might as well get it over with. It’s like she’s unknowingly cushioning the blow. She does not know, and the audience certainly doesn’t know, the gravity of what she says next. There are two people in the room who do. Anna voices how much she loves her parents even though she realizes Jorgen is not her real father, she cherishes him all the same.

I try and not use the label “tearjerker” lightly, but with this Danish film from director Susanne Bier, I mean it wholeheartedly. It cuts so deeply because there’s a bitter-sweetness to it that lingers, and that only occurs when you’re actually invested in characters. We meet Jacob first (Mads Mikkelsen), a middle-aged man, who seems to have built a rewarding life teaching in India. But on a trip back to his homeland, to hopefully acquire some funding, he comes across a familial secret that impacts him greatly. It all happens because the friendly businessman Jorgen invites his new acquaintance to his daughter’s wedding the following night. We get the film’s main jolt during the wedding and the whole story is never the same afterward because it flips everyone’s life upside down.

The next big revelation comes out when loving wife Helene presses Jorgen about his heath. Anna has her own problems when she walks in on her new husband with another woman. These up the drama, but it’s important to make it clear that this story doesn’t rely on soppy drama to maintain the stakes. The peaks are powerful, but even in the valleys, it keeps our interest. Certainly the melodrama is deeply jarring, however, it only delivers such an impact, because the people involved are far from one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. This could have easily becomes some Danish attempt at a telenovela and yet it does not. Far from it, Jacob, Jorgen, Helene, and their daughter Anna are figures, who we can almost feel the contours of. They bring to mind glimpses of friends or family perhaps. Generally good folks, who have made mistakes along the road.

In his past, Jacob acknowledges a drinking problem and sleeping with other women. Now he runs an orphanage in India and he’s matured greatly. Helene admits to not knowing all the answers for the decisions she made as a young woman. She probably should have done things differently, but the bottom line is that she loves her daughter deeply and is completely devoted to her husband. Jorgen might be a mogul and a powerful man, but he also has a deep devotion to his family. Seeing him with his kids you know he is a good father because he loves and provides for them in all possible ways. He actually makes time for them and it shows.

Hellene voices the audiences concern that all this drama is too great of a coincidence, but overshadowing that detail is something very heartfelt that Jorgen says. When he knows he probably doesn’t have too much more life ahead of him, he voices the sentiment that time is so utterly important. Furthermore, every relationship, every acquaintance we make, is important to life. Without those, life is meaningless. That’s the core of this film. It’s people parsing through the mess and finding what’s important. That’s what keeps Jorgen and Hellene together. That’s what makes Anne cherish her parents so deeply. That’s what makes it so difficult for Jacob as he weighs whether to stay in Denmark or go back to India.

4/5 Stars

Ordet (1955)

Ordet1955screenshotCarol Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet is a deeply thought-provoking, spiritual foray into the realms of faith and love. However, it is as much about doubt as it is faith, as much about discord as it is about love. It shows a spectrum that, while irrevocably Danish with its actors and setting (a bit reminiscent of Bergman), still has a universality that correlates to the contemporary world we live in. This later work by Dreyer is deliberate in pace, simple in its misce-en-scene, but the life is breathed into it by the characterizations and a beautifully subtle approach to depicting them.

The story is based off a play by Lutheran Pastor Kaj Munk, which was first performed in 1932. The majority of the tale takes place on a rural farm belonging to aged and bearded widower Morten Borgen. Aside from being a farmer, he is a prominent member of his community and a devout Christian. Now he contents himself smoking his pipe as he has three grown sons and a couple grandchildren.

His first son is happily married to a wonderful woman and mother of two, but he himself is struggling with belief in a God, and he acknowledges lacking faith in such things. His wife continues to encourage him, but he knows that such news will deeply trouble his father.

Johannes, the middle son, began believing he himself was the incarnation of Jesus Christ after deluging himself with the works of the famed Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. So now he goes around spouting off scripture and calling out those around him for their lack of faith. What makes it so mesmerizing is the dazed sincerity behind each word. He truly believes what he is saying.

Finally Borgen’s third boy, Anders, is deeply taken with a girl named Anne from the nearby town, but of course her father Peter is from a different sect, and so everyone knows that neither father would willingly agree to a marriage.

These are the problems that plague the Borgen family, so they are undoubtedly commonplace in any spiritual community. Dreyer depicts it all in very mundane terms but not as unimportant, not without a deft hand and sensitive touch.

There is one scene in particular that comes to mind. The young girl Inger, a namesake for her mother, comes up behind her uncle Johannes and with all sincerity, in her eyes and voice, she begins to ask him to raise her mother from the dead. They talk about it for a time and while they talk pensively the camera slowly makes a spiral around them. Now if this was Tarantino (in Django for instance), he would need to bring attention to his camera and the scene loses all of its impact, because he’s a director who is often about as subdued as a toothache. But with Dreyer there is a sensitivity to his movement that’s gracefully smooth, accentuated by his long takes, with a simple backdrop, and pinpoint lighting.

Between the bickering over Ander’s betrothal and the sudden decline in the condition of the pregnant Inger,  there is a lot of soul searching to be done and problems to be parsed through. In a sense, it looks like any life full of conflict, pain, and unforeseeable suffering. It’s all there and it hurts the Borgen family and turns neighbor against neighbor. This film has so many different worldviews and philosophy colliding at once. There are those who are devout in their faith, but their faiths differ. There are those who doubt it all or want cold hard facts. Some have blind faith and others are off-putting with their message. Then there those who seem content in their spiritual lives even though they are not perfect people. So essentially we have almost every iteration or cross-section of society, at least to some degree. It makes for an interesting battleground, but within that, it’s interesting how these characters start to find common ground and build rapport instead of breeding bitterness.

Furthermore, the final moments of the film are so surprising in their sincerity as they are for what actually happens. It’s in a sense wholly unbelievable, but we don’t disbelieve it — in fact, we want it — because we have followed this film thus far. What happened felt so close to home and so the ending, although somewhat unusual, feels right. It’s a strikingly beautiful conclusion to a film that speaks to our doubts, questions about faith, and ultimately our capacity to love and be loved.

This is the sort of film that would probably never see the light of day in Hollywood. It’s either you make God’s Not Dead or something that has no spirituality in it whatsoever. Ordet goes far beyond the depth of such films and it is better for it. I will not say I agree with everything that each character says, but that’s the point, because they all come from different perspectives. The best we can do is come and try to understand what others think so we can move forward from there. But spiritual conversations matter.

4.5/5 Stars