I had a roommate in college who, every day like clockwork, ate dry toast for lunch while watching The Food Network. While he never explained this routine to me no matter how many times I asked/poked fun, I always assumed he was engaging in some ritual of transference: that the act of eating what is categorically the most bland of meals somehow tasted better while experiencing a feast for the eyes; that some modicum of what was impossible to taste onscreen somehow made it into the liminal space between his brain and his mouth.
The phenomenon of television cooking in the United States is an unusual one. In a country that has virtually no unique culinary history in contrast to its European counterparts, viewing the act of cooking grew as popular entertainment, and made celebrities of cooks, at the same time that Americans were turning off their ovens in favor of microwave dinners. Cooking’s aesthetic qualities have only gone on to become further elaborated in its media representation as meals can be experienced in glorious HD, while feeding into earth-conscious food trends like specialized diets, farmer’s markets, home gardening, organic shopping, and locavorism.
The visual art of cuisine has a far scarcer history in American movies than it does in American television, perhaps because TV, like the consumption of food, is more invested in the domestic and the ephemeral (but for my money, the very best American food movie is Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night). Perhaps this notable dearth of American food movies is partly to credit for the critical and financial success of Gabriel Axel’s Danish import Babette’s Feast, a quaint, charming film about a French refugee who shakes up the routine lives of a pious village town with an extravagant feast. Upon its US theatrical release in 1987, the Best Foreign Language Film winner became one of the highest-grossing films ever released by the now-defunct arthouse label Orion Classics, besting modern favorites like Kurosawa’s Ran and Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire.
Now it’s part of the Criterion Collection.
Movies have been known and celebrated for their ready incorporation of other art forms, their ability to act as a gesamtkunstwerk more easily than your neighborhood Wagnerian opera. As a visual medium, films have portrayed paintings, sculpture, and architecture; as a largely narrative medium, films have utilized the tools of theater and literature as its indebted building blocks; as an aural medium, films can incorporate virtually any type of music. Films can also act as a canvas and portray the artistic process of any of these forms.
What is perhaps limiting about films, however, is that they are a recorded medium with an automatic archiving function, and thus cannot contain the immediacy of the artistic event. Moreover, as famously discussed by Walter Benjamin, film is a medium defined and enabled by its reproduction; there is no “original” event of a medium built through capture and assemblage. Thus, to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in The Agony and the Ecstasy or Antonio Gaudi’s oeuvre in Antonio Gaudi is still not to witness the thing itself, but its representation and reproduction.
This gap between the work of art and cinema’s ability to represent that art was perhaps best demonstrated by Henri Georges Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso, which finds the famed painter creating several original works that were promptly destroyed after the making of the film. Which is to say that these valuable Picasso’s only “exist” within the film itself; which is, in turn, to say that they don’t exist at all, but only in their capturing and representation.
Cinema’s archival and representational capacity makes it a strangely fitting medium in which cuisine and its preparation can be captured. The culinary arts are, no doubt, an art form on par with the greats, and its artistic tradition can be evidenced by the legacy of food as a near-sacred material and social ritual in France, the source of the feast of the film’s title (the Criterion disc comes with a revealing interview with a sociologist who discusses the particular importance of food in French culture).
However, with the exception of the modern avant-garde, cuisine is perhaps the only art form whose signs of success is its resulting, permanent absence. In other words, we don’t celebrate Picassos by shitting them out the next day.
Cuisine, then, has little permanence as an art form. It has no means of preservation, no historical residue that resembles the thing itself. This stands in stark contrast to film, in which unique objects are few and permanence is the ultimate sign of importance and value. Cinema, then, has a unique capacity to preserve food, its experience, and its social value. Of course, this entails the inevitable gap of representation – we can’t taste or smell what the characters’ senses encounter – but cinema can preserve the aural and visual spectacle of preparing, gazing upon, eating, and socializing over an exquisite meal, and it can do so in a way that allows us to do something unimaginable in reality: have the exact same meal more than once.
And Babette’s Feast is certainly more than one tryst with the same exquisite dining experience. An adaptation of the short story by Karen Blixen (who used the masculine pen name Isak Dinesen), Babette’s Feast is a film about the art of cooking based upon a short story. The Criterion set contains Blixen’s original 1950 short story. After viewing the film, it’s striking that, instead of describing the food itself, Blixen lends detail to the pious and reserved villagers’ experience of the food: their confusion of wine for lemonade, their eventual embrace of conversation, their gradual spell under sublime intoxication. We only know the courses because of the characters’ thoughts about it.
While Axel’s camera does not linger on the food, its matter-of-fact presence (which, in contrast to the novel, is indebted to cinema’s typical concretizing of narrative information, as explained by Criterion essayist Mark Le Fanu) directs the film’s atmosphere and constructs its mise en scene – as the food is conspicuous, the villagers’ prolonged avoidance of conversing about it is equally, comically so. And the feast gradually becomes more colorful as courses move onward, breaking the aesthetic monotony of observant 19th century rural Danish life: a salad, a decorated bundt cake for dessert, and finally a carnivalesque assortment of fruit, the almost uncontainable palette of which threatens to go all Pleasantville in this giant church called a town. While the psychological experience of the feast is essential for the short story, the visual spectacle of it is essential for the (and unique to) film.
Babette is never seen feasting herself; not even taste-testing. The food isn’t for her, and it never was. “Babette’s Feast” is an authorial designation, like “Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa” or “Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn.” The film places eating well outside utilitarianism (one of the villager’s naïvely prays for sustenance before the meal) and into the realm of high art meant to immerse all five senses.
It’s worth noting that, while this is a Danish film, the original short story (taking place in 19th century Norway) was written in English and published for “Ladies Home Journal” in 1950, right in the middle of the postwar move to the suburbs for the American middle class, a move that made cooking both more important (one of Julia Child’s primary concerns was the social pressure of hosting of neighborhood parties) and less important (the gradual disintegration of socializing through meals as a result of the popularization of television and increasingly demanding work schedules).
Babette’s Feast, in both its written and filmic form, manifests an experience directly for and largely foreign to many Americans: the extended, immersive celebration of the art of cuisine. But hey, that’s what Blu-ray is for.
Babette’s Feast is now available through The Criterion Collection on DVD, Blu-ray, and Hulu Plus.
For a more straightforward review of this disc, see my Criterion coverage on this week’s entry of Rob Hunter’s Blu-ray/DVD column.