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 Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972): Prime Luis Bunuel

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In school, I remember being enthralled by Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at Folie Bergerie” when it donned on me we were integrated into the piece, and the artist was messing with our preconceived notions by literally toying with our perceptions.

As an artist who came into his own a generation later with the likes of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel oftentimes manages the very same feat of artistic manipulation through his films. He’s the iconoclastic prince and lambaster of the bourgeoisie. He is a craftsman with an intuitive sense of how to toy with, not only his subject matter and his characters, but the audience sitting before him.

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which we might posit as an exemplary monument to his life’s work, begins with a vaguely familiar premise. People are gathering on the pretense of a dinner party, not unlike Exterminating Angel. Except there is no invisible force holding them there. Quite the opposite. For inexplicable reasons, they keep on getting interrupted and thwarted in their attempts to sit down together for the most curious of reasons.

To their credit, the central sextet sells out to the whole charade. Fernando Rey is up to his smutty old tricks as a respected foreign ambassador with a lecherous side cultivated under the right circumstances. His frequent companions are the Thevenots, Francois and Simone (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig). Nor can one forget the Madame’s air-headed sister Florence who always seems to be perpetually tagging along.

First, they go to their dinner engagement at a friend’s home for round 1. Alice Senechal (Stephanie Audran) isn’t expecting them because she thought she invited them on a different date and her husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel) isn’t at home. It’s an honest enough mistake. Except the next time, it’s more of the same as their libidos get the best of the hosts. Their maid Ines takes it all bravely with a sweet, unassuming smile as if playing dumb to all the idiocy going on around her on any given day.

It is most definitely a film of first world problems gone awry. We have a bunch of dense and pompous people of exceptional superficiality before us. However, this very easily arrived at prognostication starts giving way to more and more surrealist tinges.

The film hits the skids as Bunuel takes us into a realm all his own. Whether it’s the mind of a mad genius or a perverse old man is up for debate among the literati. But of course, he would hardly give their discourse (or mine) a thought.

Things start getting ridiculous with meal after meal stacked one on top of the other to the point of dizzying regularity. Every scene crammed together features a new dining table or a new conversation over drinks with a dash of the absurd for garnish.

Not to mention nested dreams before the days of Inception because of course, everyone, even Bunuel, seems to have some fascination with the meta, going so far as inserting his own dreams into the story purely because he can.

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What becomes the guiding force is this quintessential fluid sense of absurdism accentuated through the execution of more complex shot sequences utilizing zooms and tracking shots. They maintain the continuity while helping to maintain this Bunuelian sense of dreamscapes. Because for him that’s much of what the world is, a stream of consciousness, and there’s no necessary distinction. And yet there are times within the film he acknowledges them so explicitly as if to send a self-aware wink to the audience.

Meanwhile, he has gleeful fun forcing his characters to walk down the road together toward nothingness. One moment they’re waking up from a crazy dream. The ladies settle down for tea only for none to be available and instead they’re treated to the ghastly stories from a sad-sack lieutenant’s abysmal childhood.

All bets are off when they’re interrupted by cavalrymen winding up their maneuvers and then passing around a joint in the parlor. Another time they’re arrested for some nameless crime and another gunned down by mobsters without pretense.

I’d hardly call these moments spoilers because Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is full of non-sequiturs. Anything is capable of happening at any moment. Sometimes all of dinner is a stage, and the guests merely players. Other times Vietnam seamlessly fits into the context of the scenario’s commentary (“If they bomb their own troops there must be a reason”).

In a sense, Providence is replaced by the rhythms of chance and the bizarre, laying the groundwork for the director’s implicit worldview. But of course, it stretches much further than that imprinted onto the themes and the very fabric of the characters.

The hypocrisy of the social elites is always being closely tied with religion. Bishops are to be made light of and Bunuel’s conception of their rituals can best be summarized by one telling image of a crucifix, cradled in the arms, getting dirt unceremoniously dumped on top of it. Or for that matter, the same priest gives absolution to the man who killed his parents only to think better of it.

But not for a moment would we mistake any of these abrupt outbursts for true drama; each individual instance is only a trifle, a way for Bunuel to follow his flights of fancy like he always does, trampling everything around him with wry exhilaration.

Whatever madcap visions you can imagine in their drawing-room, they basically wind up coming into being. Although Bunuel doesn’t have the same carnivalesque showmanship of Federico Fellini or the technical and spectacular panache of a Hitchcock, he nevertheless invariably keeps their company.

For better or for worse, his films and the visions they employ stay with you. What’s more, his conception of the world is quite transparent. Fellini was mirrored in the director in 8½. There are shades of the “Master of Suspense” in Scottie from Vertigo, and just about every man in a Bunuel picture bears his mark and, at the very least, his philosophy of total irreverence.

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What’s striking is how volatile and relevant he feels in the modern age. I for one always find it perplexing to come at his work because not only does his filmography undermine the tenets of classical narrative convention, he also does much to play his audience as well.

“The Folies Bergere” was mesmerizing as we began to understand we are part of the piece. A Bunuel film is similar because you are brought into it as well and yet one could argue he goes a step further by making his audience the butt of the joke.

All your personal hangups and hypocrisies — social, political, religious, romantic — whatever they may be, will be ousted and laid bare. His players are easy targets as representations of the trivial social elite. But then we were tricked into spending all this time with them that ultimately went nowhere. So let me ask you, what does that make us? Be forewarned Bunuel might just get to you too.

4/5 Stars