A Man for All Seasons, which was for a long time my favorite movie, has for a number of years been challenged by Babette’s Feast. Before that it may have been The Graduate, though that was the occasion of my most serious blunder in Graduate School, even worse than blundering about the Rump Parliament in the class of a man who wrote the book on it.
I have always known that Graduate Schools were like Renaissance Courts, only with less elegant surroundings, so my gaffe was a self-inflicted wound. However, one of my professors in a public lecture said something I thought so wrong-headed that I lost my usual sangfroid. What the man said was that cinema was more about its visual impact rather than its dialogue. With quotations running through my head from The Philadelphia Story and Casablanca (though like most people, I get them wrong), I raised my hand and said, “But Professor. What if I were simply to say the word “Plastics”?
This was shortly after The Graduate came out; it was a huge success as it captured its zeitgeist with uncanny accuracy. Almost everyone in the audience had seen it and the ensuing laughter would have been gratifying, had I not made an enemy of the Professor. (For those who have not seen it, one of the most famous scenes in The Graduate was when a friend of Benjamin’s father tells Ben that he has just one word for him, “Plastics.” That is what one should pursue to make a fortune. The audience loved my riposte; the speaker did not.)
This in turn reminds me of Anne Bancroft at her most seductive as “Mrs. Robinson.” It is fascinating that “women of a certain age” can be even more attractive than when they were very young. Stéphane Audran, both as “Cara,” the Marquess’s mistress in Brideshead Revisited, and as “Babette” in Babette’s Feast, was far more beautiful than she was as a much younger woman in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie. As Babette, she was reserved, but even when learning to cook salt fish (quite a fall from her former career as chef of the Café Anglaise in Paris), she was as elegant as any sitter in a Sargent portrait. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie, I would never have noticed her had I not been looking for her. As Cara or Babette, her maturity had brought her a timeless beauty she lacked in the earlier film.
WRITTEN IN DANISH
Of course, as Babette’s Feast was written in Danish, I cannot quote from it accurately (though if I were less lazy, I could find the Karen Blixen short story in translation from which the film was made), but its insightful dialogue is essential to the pathos of a successful woman forced to flee Paris for Jutland because of 19th c. revolutionary violence. For years she serves two sisters, the two daughters of a protestant minister who had founded a commune on the bleak coast of Jutland. The friend who sent her to the sisters (and had been in love with one of them) sent her annually a lottery ticket. When she wins, she asks to provide a proper French meal in memorial of the sisters’ late father on his birthday. A bit consternated at the request, for these old ladies had no idea what constituted a real French dinner, they discouraged their flock not to comment on the food, for fear they wouldn’t like it! Long before the dinner is scheduled, a procession of china, wine, and supplies (including a real sea turtle for the soup) starts to arrive. Not knowing what to expect, the sisters nervously assemble their guests at the appointed time, including the local patrician and her nephew, a general from the Queen’s Court. He has eaten at Babette’s café, and the line I remember best was when he was served the Amontillado with Sea Turtle Soup: his appreciative “Echt Amontillado!” made it clear that here was at least one guest who knew that he was getting “the real thing”! He even remembered the quails en sarcophage from the Café Anglaise! This is important; while the others enjoy the meal, they haven’t the experience to appreciate what a culinary masterpiece was put before them. The general, who had fallen in love with the other daughter, also to no avail, was necessary not only to show Babette’s talent but also to give her someone who had the experience to appreciate what she had prepared.
You see, Babette was an artist. When the sisters, who expected her to take her lottery winnings and return to Paris, find out that she had spent the entire amount, 10,000 francs, on the dinner, they are dumbfounded. Babette tells them that dinner for twelve at the Café Anglaise costs 10,000 francs. When asked why she spent all her money on the dinner, she tells them that she is an artist and an artist must create. The sisters, thwarted of human love in serving their father, and the guests, despite being dined into harmony with each other, may not be wholly fulfilled until they all reach Heaven, where the impoverished Babette (“an artist is never poor”) will finally become, as one sister says, “the great artist God meant you to be.”
The movie is low-keyed and slow-moving, but I found it intensely moving, as did Pope Francis, though perhaps unlike him, I was as interested in the food as I was the film’s spiritual incite. (I meant “insight” of course, but I do find the meal incites my interest. I have the recipes, but even simplified, they would strain my culinary skills.) However, the last line in both Babette’s Feast and the Blixin short story encapsulates Babette’s artistry and perhaps the eventual bliss of all mortals currently confined to a fast-food world. One of the sisters, sensing Babette’s greatness, tells her “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”