Saturday, April 3, 2010

What's for Dinner?

Films: Babettes Gaestebud (Babette’s Feast), Delicatessen
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Babette), DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan (Delicatessen), projected on big screen.

There’s something special about food. Food connects with us in a way that other things cannot. We will do things for food that we will not do for other things, and food can motivate us to do things in ways that perhaps only love can duplicate. Food is a kind of love, after all. It’s no wonder to me that America has become the land of the tubby—there’s food everywhere, and we’re programmed to love eating it.

Babette’s Feast, or in the original Danish, Babettes Gaestebud, is a film that celebrates food in a way that few others do. In fact, perhaps only Juzo Itami’s Tampopo takes such a specific and loving approach to gustatory delights. The two films make a beautiful counterpoint to each other. The one is about one special, perfect meal while the other is about the joys of food in everyday life, and how we react to food as a part of our life. Despite this, Tampopo will have to wait here—I’m saving it for a special day in a few months.

Regardless, Babette’s Feast takes place mainly around the time during and after the French Revolution. It concerns itself with a pair of sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel). They are the daughters of a stern minister (Pouel Kern) living on the sparse and rugged Jutland coast. As befits the place they live, their world is austere, and their religion is even more so. And they are dedicated to their religion. Both women gave up their chances for marriage and happiness early on—one was wooed by a soldier (Gudmar Wivesson) and the other by a singer from Paris (Jean-Philippe Lafont). Both stayed with their father and the cold comfort of his religion instead.

With their father gone, the two sisters have grown old, trying to continue his works, tend to the old and poor, and have seen their flock constantly dwindle to a mere handful of aged parishioners. However, one day, a woman shows up on their doorstep, sent by the Parisian singer. Displaced by the terrors in Paris, she has come as a refugee needing a place to stay. She falls on the mercy of the two sisters, asking only to help them and taking no payment. This is Babette (Stephane Audran), who acts as the caretaker for the two old Danish women.

Everything changes when Babette gets a letter from her nephew. Every year, she entered the lottery, and this year, she has won a prize of 10,000 francs. It’s enough for her to go back to Paris and live a modest life for the rest of her days. The sisters, now used to Babette’s help, good works, and frugality, are distraught at losing her.

This event dovetails with the 100th birthday of the sisters’ father, an event they plan to celebrate with those remaining parishioners who have stayed loyal to the faith. As an act of blessing, Babette asks if she can prepare the meal for the evening—a true French meal—to honor the life and works of their late father. The sisters agree reluctantly, and when the ingredients for the meal arrive—wine, quails, a live sea turtle, caviar—they are mortified. Can their own act of charity of allowing Babette this wish be turned against them in a riot of sinful delights? How can they reconcile their faith of abstaining and asceticism with the glorious foods that Babette is preparing?

And so, the movie is about the beautiful, beautiful meal that Babette makes, but it is also about so much more. It is about the beauty of charity, the joy of giving everything one has to give, about making others happy, about kindness, sacrifice, and the repayment of debts already forgiven. It is a film of surprising power and beauty. While not a tearjerker in the traditional sense of the word, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t bring a drop or two at the end completely unbidden.

And, of course, there’s all of that beautiful, beautiful food.

Delicatessen covers the other end of the food spectrum. Before I discuss it too much, I need to make a special mention of my friend Doug. Doug loves post-apocalyptic movies. In fact, should we consider this a genre in and of itself, it would be Doug’s favorite by far—he loves them as much as he loves pirate movies, which is saying a lot. Doug also is an Anglophile, which means he bears a particular enmity against the French. So, Doug, I’m now going to pull you in two directions. Delicatessen is a post-apocalyptic French film. I’ll take a moment here and allow you to stew in that particular quandary, my friend. French…and post-apocalyptic. Do you stand firm against all things French or do you give in to the joy of survival after the destruction?

So, while Doug battles it out between his heart and his brain, the rest of us can get to business here. Delicatessen is indeed a post-apocalyptic film. We aren’t really told of the events of the destruction of the world, we just see the aftermath. And it’s the kind of aftermath that only the French could dream up.

Food has become the world’s scarcest resource. In fact, grain has become so scarce that it is used as currency and no longer eaten. Instead, the most common and sought after food source is other people. Our story takes place in an apartment building above a delicatessen. The butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) owns the building and runs the shop on the ground floor. His general plan of action is to hire a handyman to work around the shop. After a week or so, he kills him, butchers him, selling off the pieces to his tenants. Those who can’t pay either the rent or the meat prices need to come up with another way to make do, usually by sacrificing a member of the family to the butcher’s block.

The tenants themselves are a collection of crazies attempting to pretend their lives are normal. The frog man (Howard Vernon) eats mountains of snails and pretends to be a frog in his spare time. Aurore Interligator (Silvie Laguna) hears voices and attempts to kill herself over and over through elaborate means. Also in the apartment is Julie Clapet (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the daughter of the butcher.

Into this place comes Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former circus clown now simply looking for work. He takes the job, not knowing the fate eventually in store for him. He also falls for Julie, and she for him, which makes it something of a problem for her that the goal of the rest of the apartment building is for Louison to end up in the stew pot.

Into all of this, we throw the troglodytes, a group of people who have taken to the sewers and live underground. Hunted both as deviants and as a food source by the surface dwellers, the trogs are perhaps the most normal of the lot of strange characters in this world. Rather than hording grain as a source of wealth, they eat it, and refuse to cannibalize their own kind or others. Ultimately, it’s a reversal of the sort of thing one might expect; usually, it’s the underground dwellers who get all creepy and morlock-y.

Delicatessen is played for comedy, and it is funny all the way through. The people in the apartment building are all crazy, and the trogs themselves, while relatively sane, dress in black plastic, goggles, and rubber gloves. When Julie hires them to kidnap Louison, they give themselves code names like “Sauce Master” for the job.

This is as black as comedy gets, but it’s still comedy. Much of what happens is truly funny, but it’s a sick kind of funny, the kind that you feel a little guilty laughing at. At least at first. After all, once you’ve taken your first bite…you’ve already gone past the point of no return. The second bite goes down easier.

Why to watch Babettes Gaestebud: Joy, rapture, graciousness, charity, and beautiful, beautiful food.
Why not to watch: If you watch when you’re hungry, you’ll end up ravenous.

Why to watch Delicatessen: Sweet, succulent, tasty cannibalistic comedy.
Why not to watch: Meatloaf will never look the same again.

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