Wednesday, August 15, 2007


BABETTE’S FEAST (“Babettes gæstebud” 1987, Denmark, Gabriel Axel, from the Isak Dinesen story)
There comes a time when our 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. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss...

My entry into this soul food feast was not an auspicious one. Let it serve as both warning and encouragement.

I first saw BABETTE’S FEAST at my favorite revival house – a theatre, not a church – which happens to have bowling lanes in the basement. Now, I’d spent a hundred evenings at The Ridge, but never before had I heard those balls rumble or pins clatter. Until BABETTE’S FEAST, a film so quiet I imagined I could hear the scratch of bowlers’ pencils on their scoresheets below. A film so measured I thought I’d almost rather be bowling.

Until the feast arrived. At which point I lost track of the bowlers below, my sour attitude dissolving imperceptibly as I was caught up in textures, colors, shapes, smells, tastes – the latter entirely imagined, I’m afraid, though scarcely less delectable. Apparently the astringent opening hour cleansed my palate for the delicacies to come, and by the time the unclenching Danes slipped out into the frozen streets after the last of their surprising supper, joined hands and raised their eyes and voices to heaven, truly, eternity was nigh.

All that to say: if this one starts slow, stick with it. I think I came to this particular feast on the wrong day – I mean heck, I don’t even have a problem with Bresson on a good day – but even now I take a certain perverse pleasure in the way my journey through the film paralleled those of Martina and Philippa and their reluctant dinner guests.

The story is simple – the kind of essential simplicity that leaves room for the most subtle and complex flavors. Two beautiful sisters grow up in rocky and remote Jutland, part of a sect founded by their father whose rigorous pietism forswears pleasures of the flesh and rebuffs potential suitors. Whatever fires of revival once burned in the pioneers of this rigorous faith burn very low indeed with the passing of years and the death of their founder, and the surviving faithful are as distant and cold toward one another as their God would seem to be to them.

One wintry day a destitute woman arrives from Paris, fleeing the Revolution which has claimed the lives of her husband and children. She bears a letter: “Babette can cook.” The sisters overcome their aversion to Papists and teach her to prepare the bread and gruel they serve to the community’s poor.

Years pass, and as the hundredth anniversary of the patriarch’s birth approaches, the humble cook receives word from France that she has won 10,000 francs in the national lottery. Babette contemplates returning home – home is a recurring theme in this film about people in exile of one sort or another – but, clutching the crucifix she wears around her neck, she begs to be permitted the preparation of one last supper as a gift for the community. “Hear my prayer today. It comes from my heart.”

I have always been baffled by the way Babette’s diverse viewers see radically different feasts. Christian film lovers, who are sure to list this as one of their essential films, marvel at what they see as a celebration of community and of generous sacrifice, the sacramental quality of the things we create in God’s image, shaped from the stuff of his good creation into something transcendent, healing, life-giving. Everybody else seems to see the triumph of the aesthetic over asceticism, of sensuality over religion: in “The Hidden God” anthology, MoMA curator Mary Lea Bandy identifies Babette herself, the artist, as the god of this story, her genius and generosity hidden away in the kitchen. “The smugly virtuous, domineering, resolutely joyless dean is honored precisely by being forgotten in the fog engendered by the opposite approach to life: indulgence replaces rigidity, acceptance overcomes denial, love surmounts righteousness, and art triumphs over sermonizing.” (Maybe there are two versions of the movie in circulation?)

After pondering this for a couple decades, I came to Roy Anker’s “Catching Light” and his wonderfully detailed close reading of the film with real appreciation. He calls BABETTE’S FEAST “a seemingly simple fable about the ancient conflict between flesh and spirit” and describes (and reconciles) the same divergence of interpretations that have puzzled me all along: “Aesthetes argue for the power of art, and religionists for the power of communion. And both are right – mostly.” He calls the film “a luminous plea for the inescapable interdependence of these supposed antagonists of body and soul, art and religion. In short, they need each other – body and soul, art and belief – to make real their own deepest purposes.”

The rigorous Protestants of Jutland may judge Babette an unbeliever, and secular audiences most definitely – eager as they are to remake the film’s heroing in their own image. But what of her very un-Lutheran crucifix? Does it suggest something of the reason she fled the bloody – and anti-Catholic – French Revolution?

Babette offers up her feast like rare perfume poured out on the tired and holy feet of her fellow travelers. To miss the fact that this offering is an expression of both her art and her faith is to miss something of the essence of the film – a conjunction that Anker roots in the story’s pivotal dramatic moment. “All of this follows on her fingering of the crucifix she wears as she makes her initial request to prepare the meal for the commemoration of the minister’s centenary. That wordless gesture clarifies context and intention, and then it ramifies through everything that follows, giving those events a meaning that resolves the false conflict between art, the domain of the senses, and Christianity, the supposed conduit to a fleshless spiritual world beyond.” The meal she so painstakingly prepares is something of a wedding banquet, a celebration of the marriage of religion’s righteousness and the bliss of creation.

Faith that separates itself from the flesh runs the risk of becoming something not fully Christian. While history provides examples of saints who walk the via negativa to sanctity, ours is a fundamentally physical religion: Christ took on flesh, after all, became a man, healed our bodies, sat down to eat with us. When the founder of this world-denying sect decreed “that the earth and all that it held was but a kind of illusion,” he was asking for trouble. Trouble it took a good Catholic cook to undo.

A heavenly-minded, unfleshed religion will not sustain life – it needs the revelations of the senses to awaken famished souls. But neither is the fullness of life simply a matter of indulging the appetites – flesh without faith brings another sort of death. Feasts like Babette’s were commonplace in the Paris she fled: “General Galliffet broadly announced his devotion to Paris’s greatest chef: tragically, this same culinary devotee killed Babette’s husband and son and was in hot pursuit of Babette herself when she fled to the shores of Jutland. So much for the redemptive potential of art.” (Acker) The opera singer Papin may been rebuffed by the art-wary people of Jutland, but when the acclaim of Paris’s artistic cognoscenti finally soured, the spiritual stirrings he’d experienced in the harsher northern atmosphere beckon. The prodigal returns to find himself the celebrated guest at an unexpected feast, a homecoming of sorts.

And as the wary, weary Lutherans sit down together to eat and drink, the camera lingers on faces as they begin to thaw. Hearts slowly open, delicacies are consumed, famished souls are fed, old wounds are healed, and it’s all a great dream of some great heavenly feast to come. At some point it seems the spirit of Christ himself slips in a side door and pulls up a chair at the table – the Unseen Guest, helping Himself to a heaping helping of Cailles en Sarcophage and chuckling as He raises His cup of amontillado in a silent toast: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink of this cup, Remember me! Pass the tortoise soup?”


Available at Videomatica

1 comment:

Bob Waters said...

Undoubtedly Babette- a Frenchwoman-
was herself Roman Catholic. However, a crucifix is anything but un-Lutheran. Un-Scandanavian Lutheran, perhaps. But German Lutheranism (both in Germany and in America) has always embraced the crucifix as emblematic not only of the centrality of the Atonement but of the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, of which the corpus is historically a symbol.

The empty cross (which, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the Resurrection; the cross would still be empty if Jesus had never risen)came into vogue because of Reformed problems with "graven images," and came into largely exclusive use in Scandanavian Lutheranism as one of the distinctively un-Lutheran usages characteristic of the Zwinglianizing movement known as Pietism, which came to dominate especially Norwegian and Danish Lutheranism as it did Lutheranism nowhere else on earth.