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Guest Russell Lucas

Babette's Feast

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I watched Babette's Feast for the first time this weekend, and I was also really struck by this exchange. It exemplifies what I found both interesting and incredibly frustrating about the film. I imagine Babette's Feast being perfect for group discussions, especially with Christians who aren't necessarily film literate, because so many of its major ideas are expressed explicitly, either in dialog or voice-over. Before heading to the feast, for example, the aged Lorens talks to his younger self, saying something like, "Today I will learn if the choice you made was the correct one." Or, we see the old congregants accusing their friends for long-past betrayals so that after the feast they can hug and ask for forgiveness. It's all so incredibly literal.

Lorens' confession at the end is only possible because the film creates this romantic, parable-like world where a man's entire life can be undone by a brief exchange with a beautiful woman 40 years earlier.* It's kind of ridiculous, and I kept expecting the film to undercut these romantic ideals (which it finally does, though perhaps unintentionally, in the final scene). My general opinion of the film is that it's both too literal and too literary, by which I mean that, with a few interesting exceptions, it doesn't really do anything that couldn't have been done better in fiction.

But isn't the key dynamic in the film the transcendent vs. the literal? If so, the literal-ness of the sister's community, and those coming into contact with it (even think, for example of the opera singer--singing away until he receives the note of rejection from the Pastor) is confronted by the beauty of transcendence beyond the literal needs of those seeking sustenance in the group.

Consider the food carried to the homebound. The sisters produce some kind of ale-gruel when on their own, with Babette they give soup. That's the contrast that demands the literal nature of things within the film. Sustaining life is not the same as fully living it.

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MattPage   

One of the things I don't like about Arts and Faith is that sometimes people who don't like a given film say just enough to tarnish it for those who do. I'm not saying debate about a film coming from contrasting viewpoints isn't great (and I'm certainly not saying anyone should change anything), but it's kind of sad nevertheless when I film you love drops to being one that you now only kinda like. There are so few films that absolutely everyone with a brain loves. I used to think this is one of them, now I see flaws that I'd not noticed before. Sad.

Still, I'm showing it at our film night on Sunday.

Matt

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Darren H   

Buckeye, sorry about that. I didn't explain myself very well. When I called the film "literal" and "literary" I was talking about the form of the film rather than its themes. The first hour or so of Babette's Feast has a great deal of back story to tell, and the director's solution to this problem is to rush very quickly from scene to scene, expressing either through dialog or the voiceover the precise facts and details we need to know about each character (and nothing else). The best example I can think of right now is the young Lorens, who we see for only a few minutes -- just long enough for him to say something like, "At that moment I decided to set aside my true desires and pursue, instead, my professional ambitions. I married a woman from the queen's court . . ." I used the word "parable" in my earlier post, and I like the film best when I think of it in that context. None of the main characters (except Babette) ever seemed real to me; they're more like personifications of points in an argument.

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M. Leary   

Buckeye, sorry about that. I didn't explain myself very well. When I called the film "literal" and "literary" I was talking about the form of the film rather than its themes.

I think I have always glossed over this in the film because this kind of literalness is common in religious narratives. One thing something like Babette's Feast has in common with its Lutheran context is that it is overtly sermonic at some points. If one were to tell this same story in church, as a sermon illustration for example, the performance of the story from the pulpit would have a lot of similarities with the film. There is more exposition involved, more showing than telling, because ultimately the goal is pedagogy rather than some kind of aesthetic experience.

A lot of the Christian produced films we have discussed on this board ultimately flounder on this point. When I watch Babette's Feast, I take it as a higher functioning form of this kind of filmmaking.

I used the word "parable" in my earlier post, and I like the film best when I think of it in that context.

Same here. Which means I am looking for something different from it than I usually am when popping a DVD in the player.

Edited by M. Leary

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Darren H   

"ultimately the goal is pedagogy rather than some kind of aesthetic experience."

Totally. Which is the main reason I'd be eager to show this to a group for discussion. (Good luck, Matt, and be sure to report how it goes!) This is another reason Babette's Feast makes such an interesting comparison with Ordet, which is also parable-like and has characters that conveniently personify points in an argument, but it is very much an aesthetic experience.

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MattPage   

Well we tend no to have a huge amount of discussion and, as it turns out, most of them have seen it before. It's not a standard film group (apart from anything it's been going 8 or so years).

Matt

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Darren, that's an interesting point. Likewise to M. Leary on the teaching/parable function of the film.

Isn't this a case of the film's form following its function? Babette's Feast is about the ascetic Lutheran community learning to appreciate the fullness of creation through the celeberatory meal. The function of the story is a parable of grace, and as such the film's form demands the literalness of its visuals:

  • the opera singer's songs
  • the ale gruel vs soups and stews
  • the lottery ticket (she doesn't even purchase it herself, does she?)

I think I understand your earlier points, just that it doesn't bother me as a film. I suppose I'd also comment that the community itself reminds me of my grandmother's dying Lutheran church, so I engaged with the old folks as real people, but maybe because of what I brought to the movie instead of what it provided.

I'd be interested in going back and wrestling with some of Greg Wright's thoughts from earlier too, maybe I'll get to that--though sadly, I don't think he's been around much to engage.

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The feast scene is as great and as joy-filled as advertised, but what really makes it all work for me is Stéphane Audran. I'd seen the cover art for Babette's Feast a thousand times but never realized that was Audran.

It wasn't until my most recent viewing that I recognized Preben Lerdorff Rye sitting at the table.

For those who don't recognize the actor's name, maybe you'll recognize this...

ordet.jpg

I may be the last person on this board to make the connection, but I was stunned that I'd never recognized him before, having seen both films so many times.

Edited by Overstreet

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Apparently Jonathan Rosenbaum gave this film only two stars:

If we accept the notion that much of Dinesen’s power comes from her use of language, then the film, which drastically reduces that language and translates it into Danish, has to be something less. When young Lorens, the soldier, discovers his feelings for Martina, Dinesen treats this discovery in one magisterial sentence: “At this one moment there rose before his eyes a sudden, mighty vision of a higher and purer life, with no creditors, dunning letters or parental lectures, with no secret, unpleasant pangs of conscience and with a gentle, golden-haired angel to guide and reward him.” After a single viewing, I can’t be sure whether Axel uses some, most, or all of that sentence, but the overall impression left, which is what counts, is something much briefer and simpler.

One has to acknowledge, of course, that film and literature, being different in their essences, can’t be expected to duplicate the same effects. There are times, however, when Axel’s license gives his own effects a cuteness and/or a glibness that one would never find in the story. When Lorens is sent to the country by his father, which leads to his first encounters with Martina, Dinesen simply tells us that he has run up debts and that his angry father wants him “to meditate and to better his ways”; the movie Lorens, more dramatically and “cinematically,” is sent to the country when he burps loudly and involuntarily in front of a superior officer.

The most serious change made by Axel, one could argue, is conceptual and ideological: the movie has a 19th-century setting, but not a 19th-century sensibility. The extensive expansion of the story’s central incident — Babette, after winning 10,000 francs in a French lottery, decides to blow it all on an elaborate gourmet meal for Martina and Philippa’s congregation, to celebrate the 100th birthday of their late minister father — certainly transforms the meaning of the original by placing the emphasis on the meal’s consumption rather than its production. (Nearly all of the film’s corniest ploys — like a parishioner who periodically declares “Hallelujah!” to express his sensual pleasure in the meal — stem from this change.)

Indeed, it’s far from accidental that tie-ins with expensive gourmet restaurants in various American cities are central to the promotion of Babette’s Feast, which effectively converts the movie into an ad for another consumer product — a come-on for upwardly mobile gourmets rather than a work that is satisfying and complete in its own right. The comedy of the sensually inhibited religious community enjoying the meal almost against their own wills seems to score in an American context, much as The Decline of the American Empire did, precisely because the characters aren’t speaking English, which limits the extent to which American audiences are able to identify directly with the characters’ hang-ups. The language barrier that makes spectators in this country intolerant of most subtitled movies seems less operative if their relation to the action is more voyeuristic and pornographic, in which case the foreign language helps to distance them from the characters.

My major biases against Babette’s Feast, which are related to the above, can be summed up by two names: Orson Welles and Carl Dreyer. It isn’t Axel’s fault, of course, that he and Sydney Pollack should have so much more commercial luck with Dinesen than Welles ever did, but the differences are nonetheless instructive. And a consideration of the fact that this Danish film stars Birgitte Federspiel (as Martina), who played the female lead in Dreyer’s Ordet 30-odd years ago, leads one to some related reflections. . . .

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Finally... a blu-ray. It's not ideal, but it's something.

Edited by Overstreet

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My college friend of 30 years, who was also the Director of Photography on my USC thesis film, was killed in a chopper crash last week while shooting a TV reality show.

He loved the General's speech from Babette's Feast, and I'll be reading it at his funeral on Saturday:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believe he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite.We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together; and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

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Evan C   

Pope Francis' favorite film:

He loves Jose Luis Borges, his homeland’s master of genre-bending short stories, as well as Russia’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote about a Christ-like man in “The Idiot.”

His favorite movie? “Babette’s Feast,” a 1987 Danish film based on a Karen Blixen story. It recounts the story of two austere, devoutly Christian spinsters transformed by the arrival of a French female chef in 19th-century Jutland.

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Wow! This is my favorite bit of Pope news yet.

EDIT: I want to see his all time Top 10. Bet it's good!

Edited by Christian

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I wanted to see Babette's Feast but the copy I took out from the library was in poor condition and kept pausing.

Most people complain about the film's pauses the first time they see it. But no, it just moves slowly.

Edited by Overstreet

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Attica   

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I can't wait. I will definitely be adding that to my DVD collection.

I suspect that a lot of people here will be.

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