Sunday, March 5, 2017

Babettes gæstebud

Now that 31 Days of Oscar is over, we go back to regular features like Silent Sunday Nights and TCM Imports. This week's import comes to us from Denmark: Babette's Feast.

Babette (Stéphane Audran) doesn't show up for a while. Instead, the first part of the movie deals with where she'll be showing up, and the people she'll be meeting. In Demark in the mid-19th century, a very austere Danish pastor in a village somewhere on the northern Jutland peninsula founded what was basically a sect. He ran it with he two daughters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer). Their father has died, but they have carried on his charitable works in the village, leading a small group of believers scratching out an existence.

Martine and Filippa, for their part, never married. Filippa, when she was young, was pursued by Swedish military officer Löwenhielm who eventually broke off the relationship because he knew that his high-living ways would never make her happy. Martine had a beautiful singing voice, and even met a French opera singer Papin who trained her and groomed her for a professional career. But she felt this wasn't right for her and would violate her father's teachings, so she turned down his offer of marriage and broke off the relationship. They're spinsters now, but still doing Christ's work in their tiny corner of the world.

Several years pass, and it's now 1870. For Americans who don't know their European history, that was the year of the Franco-Prussian War, which deposed Napoleon III and instituted the French Third Republic. There were also losers of the war within French society, which is where Babette comes in. She was a cook at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, and apparently it was one on the wrong side of the political divide, because after the war, she's forced to flee France. She knew Papin in France because life-loving opera singers would go to a restaurant like this, and it is he who suggests that she flee to Filippa and Martine and seek refuge there.

They don't have much, but Christian duty requires that they take her in. Babette, for her part, works for next to nothing as a cook and housekeeper, and she's good at it. There's an immediate change in the sisters' financial status, and it seems as if Babette's presence breathes new life into the religious community and even makes the soup they distribute taste better. Babette and the sisters go on like this for years.

And then two things happen. One is that the centenary of the birth of Filippa's and Martine's father is coming up. The other is that one of Babette's ties to France comes up. Babette still had a subscription to a French lottery, and she's been informed that she's won 10,000 francs. Babette announces that she wants to do a special Parisian restaurant-style dinner for the members of the sect to honor the 100th birthday of its founder. The sisters fear this means Babette is planning to leave, while the other members also worry that this dinner is going to be much too decadent.

The final third of the movie deals with the dinner, giving us some sumptuous shots of food, some of which frankly is decadent. (Quails in sarcophagus?) But as Babette has been doing for years by her presence, this dinner has an unexpected effect on the parishioners, who wind up with a renewed zest for life. Even Löwenhielm, now a general, shows up for the dinner.

In many ways, there's not a lot going on with this movie, and yet it does so well. The cinematography is gorgeous, both of the landscape in the first two thirds and then the dinner in the final third. The story is also life-affirming and, I think, one that crosses religious lines. Even though it deals ostensibly with a strict strain of Lutheranism, the attitudes and ideas are universal in nature, about the choices we make early on and how we can be happy in life.

Babette's Feast is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, although it's released by the Criterion Collection, so it's a bit pricey.

No comments: