Anyone looking put themselves into a quick coma for some reason should consider sitting down and watching a lot of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winners from the ’80s and ’90s. Most of these films aren’t bad, by any means, but AMPAS tends to be drawn—even today, but especially back then—to blandly inspirational period pieces rather than to the truly vital work being done all over the world. Babette’s Feast, which won the award in 1988, exemplifies the kind of foreign film the Academy loves: tasteful, literary, unchallenging, faintly dull. Reviews at the time raved not about the film’s story, characters, themes, or visual style, but instead about how delectable its climactic, titular feast appeared; “Don’t go on an empty stomach!” was the common refrain. When a movie’s primary selling point applies equally well to photos in a cookbook, it’s best not to get too excited.
Faithfully adapted from a short story by Isak Dinesen—a story so short that it’s included in the Criterion edition’s accompanying booklet—Babette’s Feast tells the trifling tale of Babette (Stéphane Audran), a French housekeeper working in Denmark for two elderly spinsters (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel) at the end of the 19th century. Both of her employers, it’s revealed in extended flashbacks, renounced worldly desires (love in one case, fame and fortune in the other) to serve the Lord in ascetic piety alongside their pastor father. When Babette wins 10,000 francs in the lottery one day, she asks her employers for permission to cook a real French meal in honor of the pastor’s centenary, to which they reluctantly agree. But since this entire small village believes that pleasure is inherently sinful, they collectively decide to consume the food in stony silence, as if it were no different from the bland gruel they usually eat. (To this non-believer, that makes as much sense as agreeing to commit adultery so long as both parties act totally bored, but skip it.)
On the page, where it unfolds concisely and elegantly, this works reasonably well. Translated to the screen, however, the story seems unduly quaint in its long, slow buildup and faintly ridiculous in its culmination. Babette’s culinary creations do indeed look scrumptious, but the effects they have on the guests are a purely literary conceit, especially since everybody’s vowed to remain emotionless. “They only knew that the rooms had been filled with a heavenly light,” writes Dinesen, “as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance. Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it. Time itself had merged into eternity.”
Now that’s some damn good cookin’. Maybe there was a filmmaker of the era who could have visually conveyed such an ineffable idea, but it surely wasn’t the little-remembered Gabriel Axel, who settles for furtive smiles, buried hatchets, and the shameless device (not in the short story) of a humble coachman who sits in the kitchen as Babette cooks and makes astonished yummy faces at every dish he’s invited to taste. The story’s poignant theme—that love and art retain their beauty even if they can only be indulged once in a lifetime—registers more as an afterthought than as the soul-stirring revelation clearly intended. Criterion generally has exceptional taste; it’s surprising that the company chose to honor this wan effort with its imprimatur. Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends And Girlfriends, Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman, Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s House, and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum all came out that year, and any one of them would have made a much better choice—for the Oscar as well.
Also new this week:
Criterion also offers a Blu-ray upgrade of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm—a more defensible selection, on the whole. Other catalog titles this week include the 1961 Tennessee Williams adaptation Summer And Smoke, starring Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Page, and Harlow, a 1965 biopic featuring Carroll Baker in the title role. (Both come courtesy of the increasingly valuable Olive Films, which deserves a medal.)
Of the new releases arriving on home video, best bet is probably the well-reviewed Graceland, a Filipino-American thriller about a kidnapping associated with a child-prostitution ring. The U.K. import Welcome To The Punch has unexpected moments of power and an unusual respect for human life, given the trashy subject matter. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of Kim Ki-duk’s Venice prizewinner Pieta, in which an enforcer for a loan shark finds his belief system shaken by a woman claiming to be his mother. And from Germany comes The Silence, telling the somewhat pokey but cumulatively powerful tale of two nearly identical murders that took place in the same location, 23 years apart.
More in the mood for dumb fun? There’s always Trance, Danny Boyle’s singularly ludicrous hypnosis saga, starring James McAvoy as a thief who can’t remember where he hid a valuable painting and Rosario Dawson as the hypno-therapist trying to help him. And it’s straight to video in the U.S. for Francis Ford Coppola’s 2011 3-D horror film Twixt, featuring Val Kilmer and Elle Fanning; reviews suggest that it skews closer to recent art-damaged efforts like Tetro and Youth Without Youth than to The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, or even to Dementia 13, but that’s to be expected at this point.