As a kid back in the Pleistocene, I was periodically dumped in front of the TV after school, and that meant either talk shows, soaps, or movies, and every so often I’d tumble out of a run of rubber-suited monster pictures—Reptilicus, Gorgo, Night of the Blood Beast—into another and equally bizarre afternoon genre: the woman’s picture, or “weepie,” as Variety called them.
We recognize the territory when we channel-surf into it: Lana Turner in that enameled 50’s technicolor, facing away from some knit-browed and forgettable male; Barbara Stanwyck looking star-crossed and miserable as she peers over a fence in the rain at her own daughter’s wedding; Joan Fontaine just staying put, her whole gestalt a perfect figure for submissiveness. An overstated string section to help us register the heartache.
The stories trundled through decades of forbearance: slow-moving, mile-long freight trains of self-denial. All those women gave up what they most wanted for somebody else’s sake. Which meant that their movies centered on events that didn’t happen: the singing career that wasn’t begun, the wedding that didn’t occur, the meeting in the park that never came off, the key phrase left unspoken. Which made for movies obsessed with the life not lived: a weird negative space of the never-was and the might-have-been. Even the titles gave it away: Written on the Wind, All I Desire, Since You Went Away, There’s Always Tomorrow, Imitation of Life.
The weepie is back in the news because of the attention Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, with its four Academy Award nominations and its critical support on both coasts, has received. While Heaven is not as jaw-droppingly mechanical a project as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho a few years ago, the debate around it has centered on just what to make of the extremity of its stylistic self-consciousness. It’s either a reconstruction of or a paean to Douglas Sirk’s mid-century melodramas, particularly All That Heaven Allows. Sirk was the great American master of the astoundingly overwrought and the weirdly bottled up, when it came to suburban white emotions.
Part of the reason we gape today at such movies is because of the way they enshrine what seems to us an antiquated masochistic selflessness, if not self-eradication. They all seem to feature a woman who wants in some way to express herself, to make herself known, plopped down in a story that demonstrates the impossibility of realizing that desire. Again, go back to the titles: Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Old Maid, Madame X.
All of that should sound familiar to anyone who’s read one of those steamer trunk sized 18th-century novels like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa that feature 1400 pages of private feelings informed by pious, if not puritan, codes of morality and conscience colliding with innermost desires. Conflicts, in other words, not so much between heart and head as heart and soul.
If that was the choice, it wasn’t too hard to figure out which we were supposed to root for. Jeez. Heart (and by implication, body) or soul: which was ultimately more important? In other words, even by then, desire had become the mechanical rabbit powering the race but always a little ahead of the greyhounds: the thing it was okay to want as long as you understood you should never get it.
All those critics enlisting Far From Heaven for their Ten Best lists, then, had a problem: how to celebrate a movie which seemed to offer such unappetizing or outdated thematic dichotomies? Those who didn’t like the movie considered it a kind of patronizing anthropology: boy, were people dumb back then. Those who liked it tended to solve the problem by assuming some sort of irony or camp was in operation: that Heaven was a parody, even if a loving and reverent parody.
This, of course, is a dangerous strategy for celebration, since it mostly evacuates the work’s ability to move us. So Daniel Mendelsohn led the charge to recuperate a greater seriousness for movies like Haynes’ in a recent essay in the Times Magazine, “The Melodramatic Moment.” (Right now? This month? How’s that for topicality?) Mendelsohn’s move was to suggest that the cultural ground has shifted significantly enough that classic melodrama—a larger category than weepies alone, of course—could once again be taken straight. This is a time in which George W. Bush is being presented by serious political commentators as Churchillian, after all. All sorts of ideas previously considered idiotic might be plausibly swallowed. It’s not an unprecedented move (Sigh; okay, we’re post-ironic) and it ends up being an argument for the expressive potential of excess, of just letting it all hang out. So that a large number of movies which sure look cynically artificial in their self-conscious manipulation of the seemingly inadequate narrative choices provided by their genres—from Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge to Rob Marshall’s Chicago—turn out to be sincere. Hmm.
After all, the argument goes, melodrama—in the larger sense of flattened and exaggerated categories of difference—without a shred of irony certainly seems to be the order of the day as far as Fox News and the White House are concerned. (A geopolitical conflict like our current one, it turns out, divides up between the forces of freedom and an axis of evil.) But that sounds like another way of saying our culture is regressing: that the choices weepies may present to us are of interest once again only because it’s bread-and-circus time in the American Empire.
Sixteen years ago, though, and squarely within what most would have reckoned as the Age of Irony, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast took on the apparently narrow and outdated world view of the weepie and provided an exhilarating sense of what it could teach us. A decade and a half before movies like Far From Heaven seemed to offer their take-it-or-leave-it option—either solemnly accept these conflicts on their own terms, or patronize the entire project—Babette’s Feast opened up a more generous possibility.
In a lot of ways it seemed to be your basic weepie. It told the story of Puritan sisters, Martina and Phillipa (their Puritanism mandated by their father to the extent that they were named after male Protestant theologians) living in a desolate and remote corner of Jutland. Against all odds, each is given a spectacular opportunity for happiness and connection to the glamorous outside world. One catches the eye of a charismatic young officer in the army; the other has a special gift, if not genius, for singing. They’re then joined by Babette, a French chef exiled by the violent upheavals in her country, who turns out to be, if we’re to believe two different generals— and who’d have more authority, representing the outside world’s opinion, than generals?—one of the world’s greatest artists at what she does. Over the course of the movie, none of the women seem to do much of anything. For years.
We’ve seen this before, in weepies: the tyrannically powerful family relationship that separates the heroine from her lover or aspirations. Babette’s Feast gives us both frustrated desires, one in each sister. Martina’s denied love; Phillipa, her singing career.
So the movie, after five minutes of establishing the sisters’ prim and spartan lives as elderly caretakers of their father’s sect, startles us by dissolving to their past and giving them back their youth and beauty. At which point the narrator compares them to flowering fruit trees, the fruit of which we see comically attracting suitors from both within and without the village.
As far as Dad’s concerned, though, everybody can leave their baskets at home. Because he’s there to deny the value of earthly pleasure or fulfillment as dangerous, and an empty illusion. He sends all suitors on their way.
In this kind of story, both romantic love and artistic self-expression—each of which might be considered emotional self-expression—are rejected as possibilities because in the face of familial and social pressure, the woman in question fails to act on her desire. The world is closed off around her while we watch, and she accepts to a large degree the unexamined assumption of her powerlessness. Mostly, she’s acted upon. Her identity, then, seems to be formed around suffering. Hence the term: weepies.
We need to take a minute to consider how anomalous a genre weepies really are. Most movies—especially American movies—are essentially dramatic. As opposed to lyrical (concerned with mood or the inner self) or conceptual (with ideas). The weepie’s the exception. It creates an interesting aesthetic problem, for the people making it: how do you explore characters, in an essentially visual medium, who are not constantly externalizing their conflicts in action? Babette’s Feast takes that problem and turns it right around: makes it work for the movie. Sirk said this in an interview about his use of color in Written on the Wind:
Almost throughout the picture I used deep-focus lenses which had the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enameled, hard surface to the colors. I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters, which is all inside them and can’t break through.
He was talking about making style the primary vehicle for emotion, because so much that’s crucial to his story happened inside his characters, and went unexpressed.
There’s an early moment in Babette’s Feast that seems distilled from that kind of movie. We cut from Lieutenant Lorens (the future general who fell so hard for Martina) in the brilliant, far-off world at court (baroque salons, dancing swells) to the sisters in their nightclothes, alone in their bare bedroom. The waltz music bleeds across the transition, a forlorn sound bridge. One sister’s at the window; the other, eyes open, has her face to her pillow. We’ve glimpsed the glamorous, far-off world that’s been forsaken. Then: two women in their dressing gowns, preparing for sleep. One gazes out the window into the night, and asks, “Do you remember that silent man who appeared so suddenly, and vanished just as suddenly?” The other turns, haunted, and says, “Yes.” We’re encouraged to imagine a vast stretch passed this way, in pursuit of another time that never happened. We’re encouraged to focus on the unspoken. To remember that in lives like these, especially, there’s always more to tell than can be said.
In social terms, then, weepies concentrate on the point of view of the victim. Which may be why they’ve been so good at laying bare patterns of domination and exploitation in a given society. Babette’s Feast works quietly to demonstrate that the dynamic of oppression operating between father and daughters has its social correlative; their little society’s support for their arrangement is cued throughout the movie. Whenever we see suitors marching up to the pastor’s home, we’re provided with shots of villagers looking on with disapproval; when we subsequently see suitors turned away, frustrated, we’re provided with reaction shots of the same villagers, once again assured that all is right with the world.
Even the suitors themselves seem to understand that they have no right to privilege their desires over the girls’ father’s. I have a right arm and a left arm, he explains to them in one scene. Would you take either from me? No one thinks to answer, Use your own arms.
The sisters, of course, are also complicitous in each other’s situations. When the celebrated singer Achille Papin visits their dismal little village, and is transported by hearing the youthful Phillipa’s voice during church services, he begs permission to train her voice. His lessons become a courtship, his duet’s lyrics comically appropriate to the occasion (—“A voice within me calls you, it calls you from my heart; come now, don’t fight against it, it is the voice of joy.”—”I tremble, yet I listen; I’m fearful of my joy. Desire, love and doubting are battling in my heart.”) and we see Dad and Martina listening, holding hands in anxiety. They too know what’s being enacted, and Martina isn’t only comforting Dad. She seems to need comfort herself.
Soon after, when Phillipa announces to her father and sister that she doesn’t want her lessons to continue, her father and sister peer at her in the same way. The movie continually suggests that the sisters’ sacrifices are mutually reinforcing: if Martina gave up what she gave up to stay, then can Phillipa really go? Wouldn’t leaving be an even larger betrayal, of both her father and her sister?
After her decision, we’re given a sequence of Phillipa knitting and distraught, and Dad, then Martina, noticing and saying nothing. We read into those reaction shots sympathy, restraint, decorum, and complicity.
In most movies, drama moves towards its resolution by making its conflicts more and more externalized. Someone decides he’s finally going to face down Black Bart; somebody else decides to go after that big fish. In the weepie, because of the way social pressure limits the range of both action and self-expression, intense feelings are bottled up, and aggression is worked out by proxy.
A surprising amount of aggression builds up in Babette’s Feast, surprising because these are basically good people, and because a lack of harmony has supposedly been legislated out of this sect. The dozen members meet periodically to renew their commitment to peace and brotherhood. They’ve voluntarily given up nearly everything, so they should have almost nothing to fight over. They live in identical houses and eat the same brown slop. And yet they still bicker. They snipe. They hold lifelong grudges. About what? I cheated you out of some of your brown slop. You never should have kissed me thirty years ago. What the narrator with some pained dismay terms the “schisms” that erupt within the sect is, we realize, aggression being worked out by proxy. But who’s the aggression really directed against, and why? The sisters, for their kindness and patina of virtue. The sect’s founding father, for having gotten them all into this mire of self-effacement in the first place. And primarily, of course, themselves, for having signed up for this, and carried it through.
This is the little social tundra where Parisian gourmand Babette (played by Stephane Audran) seeks asylum, bearing a letter from Papin. From it we learn that her husband and son have been murdered, her calling taken away, her whole life annihilated. The deal she makes that night—the only deal the stubbornly self-denying sisters will offer her—is the deal she’ll live by for the rest of her life: she’ll work for them for no wages. Because, as she tells them, if she can’t, she’ll die.
It’s a crappy deal. But throughout the movie, she’s uncomplaining. And as she goes about her business, poker-faced, the movie quietly reminds us of her unhappiness.
Right after her arrival, we watch her weathering with infinite patience the sisters’ rudimentary run-through of the glories of Danish cooking. They show her a spoon. They show her how to stir. They show her brown glop. The sequence is even more powerful in retrospect, when we, like the sisters, realize what a humiliation this must have represented for one of Paris’ greatest chefs, and how uncomplainingly she accepted it.
Periodically thereafter we’ll see Babette alone, her face composed, gazing off into space. Such moments will change in retrospect, once we learn just how much has been stripped from her, how much her world has been shattered. But before that, when we look at her, it’s almost as if, like the sisters, we want to believe that she’s thinking, What a nice place. I’m so glad to be here. Audran infuses her performance as Babette with such restraint and dignity that it allows us to make the same mistake the sisters do: to believe that Babette’s really not that unhappy.
The revisitation of the past is central to both the weepie’s structure and emotional power, since lost, forsaken, and reclaimed opportunity is always at the heart of the matter. And it’s not hard to figure out why, since it was a genre designed to be consumed by women. (The screenplay’s based on Isak Dinesen’s short story, and she knew a little bit herself about such matters.)
The sisters revisit themselves in the flashback to their youth, and Babette, too, is given back her past. First because of a stroke of luck: a letter arrives from France informing her she’s won the lottery—10,000 francs, a staggering sum. (And it’s a measure of the climate of powerlessness in weepies that more than any other genre would dare, its plots turn on outrageous occasions of good and bad luck.) And second, and more importantly, she’s given back her past because of her generosity.
The sisters had been planning a dinner for the surviving sect members to celebrate their father’s memory. Babette pleads to be allowed to make that dinner, with her own ingredients and at her own expense, and the sisters, reminded that she’s never asked them for anything but this, relent. But immediately they begin fretting that their sect’s going to be sinfully compromised and opened up to hidden, dangerous powers.
Which, it turns out, it is: to the sensual, to be specific. The sect’s solution to this problem is yet another form of aggression enacted in a bottled-up way: they resolve to deny their senses. Whatever it means to Babette—who has, remember, only asked for this one thing—and however much it might disappoint her, the sisters and sect-members resolve not to convey any appreciation, or even reaction.
They resolve to stay their decades-old course of denying a certain kind of human connection based on pleasure. They resolve not only to say nothing about the food, but to not experience it, either; to not taste it. This, we register, is an unusual level of self-denial. As one sect member puts it, memorably, justifying their decision, “The tongue is a source of unleashed evil and deadly poison.” Well. Okay, then.
They then sing the hymn “Jerusalem, My Heart’s True Home,” underlining the limitations of a life based not only on faith—for their faith is real, and the movie does respect it—but also a denial of the world. Their true home is Denmark. But they refuse to live in this world. They live as though the body is the spirit’s implacable enemy. But Babette’s Feast turns out to demonstrate that the body is the spirit’s ally; in fact, the spirit’s true home.
Imagine, for a moment, that Babette is what the movie claims she is: an artist. What she constructs by the end—her crowning triumph— is collaborative. Even this crew— and of course, the special nature of her triumph is that she’s brought heightened pleasure and appreciation to even this clutch of lumps, who A) have no way of contextualizing their experience (is this a great red wine? Is this a great turtle soup? How would we know?) and B) have no intention of allowing themselves to do so, anyway. Am I crazy, or is this what all art aspires to? Isn’t this the opposite of preaching to the converted? What’s great about the collaboration between artist and audience in this case, once the sect starts being ravished by the food, is that it’s their triumph, and not just Babette’s. These people, who’ve had salted cod and ale bread their whole lives, have begun to recognize nuance and difference and a range of response previously unknown to them. They’ve become—she’s made them—better readers, and happier readers, and their text is the world itself.
The sisters want to have a dinner for their father—an offering to his memory and a celebration of their faith in it—but they’re proud of the fact that it won’t involve any fuss. They’re going to celebrate the anniversary of their father’s birth with “a modest supper and a cup of coffee.” Babette proposes the opposite: a gourmet French dinner. She gives them, implicitly, her opinion: you want to offer up glory to God? Then try something glorious. You want to celebrate God’s love, and your father’s? Then try something celebratory. She tells them, when pleading to be allowed to do it, “Hear my prayer: it comes from my heart.” My prayer. We’ve heard yours, and I respect it. Now hear mine.
It’s not a coincidence that Babette’s imported ingredients take the form of exotic life: a little cage of quails, a mournful and surreal sea turtle, hissing and dripping with sea water. The village comes out to see the ingredients trundled into town, not only because this is a place so divested of event that a letter from France is a big deal; also because these ingredients represent a little Parade of Plenty down the street.
The ingredients form both a spiritual and secular metaphor: you can make your meals with two ingredients, or with hundreds. It’s not an issue of which would be better, but one of possibility.
Babette provides even the linens and the crockery; she works, in other words, to transform the sisters’ home into the Cafe Anglais, that transcendent place when she worked her artistry, and the lingering nature of a gorgeous slow pan over the transformed table with its silver candlesticks emphasizes both the extent of the transformation and the sect members’ stunned surprise.
It’s a moment Sirk would recognize. The look of the movie at this point has become the primary means by which it’s communicating. It’s hard to think, in fact, of another movie in which the contrast of emotional and spiritual states is played out so comprehensively in visual terms. Early on, the village’s starkness and austerity and lack of possibility, not only in economic but also in emotional terms, are all established visually through its otherworldly simplicity: grey thatched roofs, whitewashed walls, bare ground. The only beautification possible seems to be the water that Babette sloshes on the windows to wash them.
And then that austerity and lack of possibility get transformed. Once dinner preparations are underway, the movie’s palette changes from the cold greys and whites of the sisters’ home and village to the warmth of Babette’s kitchen and the assembled ingredients. From bare surfaces lit with blue and white light to cluttered textures and shapes in red and brown and gold. From only what’s necessary to more than one would desire.
Come inside where it’s warm, the sisters tell their guests when they arrive, but the anteroom they usher everyone into looks only marginally warmer than the outside. Come inside where it’s warm, Babette tells the general’s coachman, and she ushers him into a room lit with the warm light of a roaring fire. Come inside where it’s warm is what she’s saying to everyone at the dinner, and her transformation of the dining room is what allows that warmth and plentitude to be spread around. The guests, sitting down to eat, say a prayer to reaffirm their unwillingness to acknowledge the power of the here and now: “May the bread nourish the body; may the body do the soul’s bidding.” “Like the wedding feast at Cana,” one of them adds, “the food will have no importance.” But they’re forgetting that the story of the wedding feast at Cana is only known to us because the food has importance: Mary asks Jesus to do something about the fact that their hosts have run out of wine; Jesus obliges. He doesn’t say, “Who needs wine? Water’s fine for me.”
But whatever our pinched little sect members have resolved to ignore, they’re not going to be able to pull it off. The comic impossibility of not reacting to this food is conveyed by the movie’s ability to put the food, in all of its exotic lusciousness, right up in our faces.
Lorens the general, meanwhile, has apparently not found happiness or meaning in his quest for career. His shock at the transformed table is one of the comic highlights of the movie. And his stunned appreciation—and comprehensive knowledge—of what he’s eating is crucial, since the filmmaker can show us how beautiful the food is, and set up a contrast with what’s come before, but he can’t visually render taste. We don’t have any way of knowing how astoundingly good this is. And at first the sect members are committed to not reacting. So we need the General’s pleasure, to cue what we imagine would be our own.
Lorens, like Babette, and like the sisters, is having a glorious aspect of his past returned to him—and not as an illusion. Or as a memory. And as they need to in the larger sense, the other diners learn by his example: the way he drinks turtle soup becomes the way they drink turtle soup. The way he gets at the leftover sauce around his quail becomes the way they get at their leftover sauce. The way he finally comes to understand this as an act of love, of giving, and not a sinful indulgence, is the way they finally come to understand it, as well.
Lorens tells the story of the Cafe Anglais. A French general—the same one who killed Babette’s husband and son—told him that she had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair that made no distinction between physical and spiritual appetite. Martina and Phillipa, after a lifetime of self-denial, savor their food. Lorens makes a silent toast to Martina. And one of the guests points out by way of dinner table conversation that “The only things we can take away from this earthly life are what we have given away” and goes on to add that “if that’s the case, our sisters will be rich indeed.” But who has been the founder of this feast? Whose generosity is this? It’s a generosity that’s gone way beyond spending money. It’s involved spending money on this sect, which will have no idea of what it’s eating.
By the time the fruit arrives we’re in a sequence of pure enjoyment, with the camera lingering on close-ups of faces chewing, savoring, and beaming in various directions. We gape at an enormous pile of fruit, an image of serenity and plenty that extends back beyond the still lifes of 17th-century Dutch painting to the frescoes of republican and imperial Rome. And Lorens, who’s been unable to make any headway in getting this crowd to mention how good the meal’s been, stands for a toast, and confirms for everybody what’s just been enacted. “Mercy and truth have met together,” he announces. Babette has demonstrated that the two are not mutually exclusive. Righteousness and bliss, he tells us, have kissed one another. Mercy, he goes on to suggest, in an absolutely beautiful formulation, imposes no conditions.
Every so often—fleetingly perhaps, but genuinely, nonetheless—everything we’ve chosen and everything we’ve rejected is granted us. Every so often the world’s grace allows us a greater glimpse of what’s possible, of what we’re capable of.
So something very cool is happening here to the weepie. If Far From Heaven suggests that we can either take the traditional weepie’s array of shrunken options seriously on their own terms or see them as the basis for camp, Babette’s Feast sixteen years earlier had already opted for Door Number Three. Women in weepies had two options: self-denial or indulged desire. The former led to spiritual fulfillment; the latter to corruption. That’s the movie that Martina, Phillipa, and their father thought they were in. But it turns out the formulation was too narrow. It turns out that what’s liberating—in a secular and spiritual way—is the embracing of life and human connection. Self-expression itself.
After dinner, the villagers head outside, their hands linked, forming a circle under the stars, their faith renewed and strengthened. The ironies of their insulation are still present. They’re tipsy, of course; that’s one reason everyone’s so happy.
And when they sing, continuing their hymn, “so that our true home we shall find,” we cut to Babette, all by herself, and exhausted. Their happiness at this point is her doing, and their happiness doesn’t eliminate the irony and sadness of her position. Where’s her true home?
To confirm that irony and sadness, she then tells the sisters her terrible secret: she was that chef at Cafe Anglais; she overheard Lorens talking during the meal, and she had to relive all of that pain and loss while preparing their food. While she was making this meal for all those people who weren’t going to appreciate it, she was forced to remember having done the same thing for the man who killed her family. The sisters didn’t know this, and neither did we. We couldn’t even see it on Babette’s face. But it doesn’t matter. None of this was for us, or the diners, anyway. Babette cooked this meal to express herself, in a world that wouldn’t afford her that freedom.
Weepies were about the glorious release of a repressed female voice. And Babette’s Feast is the slyest and most benign sort of reclamation project, as far as that genre’s concerned. If women in weepies always carried the burden of feeling for everyone, and were never allowed to articulate what they felt, Babette—and because of her, the sisters—finally get to articulate themselves fully, and nearly exclusively, through the medium of film itself, through the film’s look. One of the central characteristics of the weepie—that preoccupation with time lost, or never experienced—is being recouped here, because that return to memory in this case is not inherently saddening or paralyzing. In one of the least likely places on earth, Lorens has found the Café Anglais recreated here, in the present. Martina has had what she shared with him returned to her. Phillipa has had what she shared with Achille Papin returned to her.
Memory here no longer tyrannizes. These women, like all those other women, have gone nowhere geographically. But they’ve had an amazing adventure nonetheless. Phillipa, having been given such a gift, reciprocates, in the movie’s last moments, with the words Papin used to console her: “This is not the end; I’m certain it’s not. In paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be.” It’s Papin’s expression of love, which is heartfelt, and because it reoccurs, both absurd and moving, like a beautiful chain letter, returning after all these years. “Oh, how you will delight the angels,” she concludes. It’s the only thank you she can articulate.