September 05, 2006
Babette's Feast v. Chocolat
In 2000, Chocolat came to screens to much praise. The story: A provincial town in France—close-knit, tradition-bound, suspicious of outsiders—is about to embark on its Lenten fast when a mysterious woman, Vianne Rocher, and her daughter open a chocolate shop. Immune to the Lenten discipline, Rocher, is a temptation to those who would remain steadfast. She is also a magnet for those who feel trapped in that community, whether by an abusive marriage, loneliness, or debilitated health. Rocher is, putatively, a breath of fresh air who will shake this den of dull convention out of its doldrums, self-imposed fasts, and narrow-mindedness—with the help of some Irish “gypsies,” of course.
But things are never that simple: First of all, parental figures loom everywhere, waiting for the slightest errant movement in order to utter a didactic NO. Taking pride of place in this regard is the mayor, played with Oscar-worthy yet Oscar-denied grace by the gifted Alfred Molina, who is intent on maintaining his grip on his town by shutting down the chocolate shop and driving out the gypsies who have settled by the waterfront (just as his ancestor drove out all those pesky Huguenots). He will save his little fiefdom from decadence and irreligion!
So we are presented with two potential savior figures: Rocher, with her pagan spirituality, and the mayor, who represents order, tradition, and repression (if we were being generous, perhaps we would substitute the word “sublimation”).
But wait! Our filmmakers have another agenda: Rocher, with her rootlessness, cremation ashes, and complacency, is just as “dogmatic,” you see, as the mayor and his sycophants. She, too, wants to control her emotions—by running away whenever things become too uncomfortable, regardless of the ill effect this has on her daughter, whose suffering she refuses to acknowledge. She too is controlled by the past! So Rocher and the mayor are mirror images of each other!
At first glance, a Lutheran might be beguiled into thinking this was a Lutheran-leaning tale. Shouldn’t we rejoice in the rejection of Romanist practices—these traditions of men! Shouldn’t we take solace in the fact that Rocher’s New Agey practices are apparently denounced as lifeless as well? Shouldn’t we see this as a lesson against self-salvation through ritual, either ascetic or mystical? And doesn’t the gypsy—even though Johnny Depp—stand for that “outside force” that brings true enlightenment and liberation to the various egoisms running rampant? And what of the village priest’s Easter homily that sums up the tale—our lives are to be defined by what we embrace and not by what we exclude! And we Lutherans embrace the gospel!
The great enemy in this film, as announced by the Narrator, is tranquility. It is in tranquility that the still small voice of God may be discerned. It is also the voice of conscience. The rituals mocked are not just Catholic, but Christian—a Christianity perceived as turned in on itself and unwilling to allow the spirit to blow where it will—not the Holy Spirit, but the spirit of the flesh, the spirit of the age. This is a wholly pagan conception of life, in which one finds freedom by letting the past go—not through embracing the forgiveness of one’s sins but by simple rejection of such a concept as sin! True liberation lies in pursuing one’s passion in the moment and refusing to be restricted by the ties that bind one to what’s long gone—whether these commitments are personal, familial, or religious. It is a sentiment that finds reconciliation not in faith in God’s gifts, not in the sacraments that come to us through an institutional church, but in Nature’s gifts, which are salvific because they satisfy the appetites. Imagine there is no heaven, but only an abundant, fecund earth.
As for this village idiot, err, I mean priest, this is his homely homily in sum: “Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about his divinity. I'd rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. Listen, here is what I think. I think we can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
Again—apparently Christian sentiments, if you are a member of the ELCA or the ACLU.
But this is the priest’s Easter homily. He would pull us away from thoughts of the miracle of Christ’s conquering of death—which is what Our Lord’s kindness and “tolerance” were in aid of—to what is to be enjoyed in this life. And in Chocolat, death is to be put far from us, which is what the fast is to put us in mind of. Forget Christ’s divinity—let us live at the Wedding at Cana. In the Kingdom of God, yes; in this veil of tears, those who feast incessantly get fat, drowsy, and ultimately depressed, as one becomes addicted to and immune from what had previously satisfied.
That there should be feast days as well as fast days even here on earth, Lutherans agree. But in the vision of Chocolat, there is no need of grace, because there is no concept of sin, only of ignorance. Discipline implies a higher way, higher things. The only thing to be denied in Chocolat, is denial; the only thing to be judged, judgment itself.
Old Testament Reading for Sunday, September 3, Proverbs 9:1-6: Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, Whoever is simple, let him turn in here! To him who lacks sense she says, Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.
At first blush, it would seem that here we have an earlier version of Chocolat, transplanted to chilly Denmark—wherein a community of musty, crusty religious fanatics are rustled from their living death by an earthy Mediterranean debauchee. Ah, but the resemblance is merely skin deep, my Lutherans.
So a group of pietists (they are described in the subtitles as “puritans,” but what kind of puritans maintain a crucifix and make the sign of the cross?) live within meters of each other in a desolate and wind-swept swatch of Denmark. They are held together by the memory of their dead pastor/prophet and his two daughters, named Martina and Philippa—after me and Melancthon, if you can believe it—both of whom gave up opportunities for marriage in order to assist their father in his ministry, whose theology can be summed as “Mercy and truth meet together, righteousness and bliss kiss.”
One stormy evening, a refugee from civil war in France, Babette, comes knocking at the door of the two sisters. Babette has been sent to them as a potential maid/cook by an old suitor of one of the sisters, a French singing teacher whose advances were rejected many years ago.
Babette is willing to work for room and board—no wages. The sisters are relieved to have the help—and some extra cash, as this Babette is quite clever at finagling bargains from local merchants, who themselves have a tendency to pass off slightly fetid goods as fresh.
Fourteen years pass. Babette is thoroughly integrated into the community, having learned the language, the plain tastes, and the simple patterns of life. But all is not well. This small band of Christian brothers and sisters are beginning to get on each other’s nerves. Old resentments, old sins, old bitterness is beginning to come to light, and the right hand of fellowship threatens to degenerate into the left hand of “upside your head.”
Then, as if by "chance," Babette wins a lottery that a family member has been playing for her in her native France. Ten thousand francs is hers. The sisters, who have come to rely on and love Babette, fear she will no longer have any reason to stay in Denmark and will abandon them for Paris. However, before she does anything, Babette wants to prepare a feast—an extraordinary meal of all her favorite French dishes—in honor of the 100th anniversary of the sisters’ pastor-father’s birth. At first the sisters resist, preferring the plain supper they were used to on such an occasion. But Babette insists, even pleads—and she also insists on paying for it all out of her lottery winnings.
Yet as the meal’s fixings come ashore from France—a boar’s head, pigeons, casks of wine, wheels of cheese, etc., etc.—Martina has a terrible dream, that what she has allowed into their home is not a memorial dinner, but a witch’s Sabbath. She has permitted an indulgence that is pagan and antithetical to the teachings and spirituality of her sainted father. Martina brings together the community, without Babette’s knowledge, and confesses to them her “sin.” They rally around her and promise that, even though the feast shall proceed as planned, they will make no mention of it, and even as they consume it, it will be as if they were not eating at all. A spiritual discipline will be applied that will strangle the flesh and permit Satan no access to their souls.
The night of the feast is upon them. Among the guests is a general late of the Swedish court who as a young man had wooed one of the sisters but who had been shooed away by her father, who feared losing one of the “hands” that enable him to carry out his ministry. The young soldier vows to spend the rest of his life pursuing success on worldly terms, having been defeated in his quest for something deeper, more spiritual—true love.
Now he reappears, a success by the standards he set, yet all is not well with him. He remains empty, despite his medals and epaulets—vain things, he despairs. But once Babette’s feast begins, he is awestruck by its richness, extravagance, and overwhelming power. He remembers having a meal like it only once before, prepared by a master chef back in Paris. As he begins to sing the praises of each course, the until-now silent and apparently underimpressed villagers begin to allow themselves to enjoy the meal set before them. They begin to savor the tastes, the smells, and exotic dishes. As they relax and fill up, their tongues loosen, their hearts open, and they also unburden themselves. Those petty resentments that threatened to tear them apart are now confessed and laughed over. Sins are forgiven over the meal. What was beginning to come between them is now an occasion for reconciliation, as they recognize the same sins within themselves that they accuse others of.
So it would seem that Chocolat and Babette’s Feast have at least this in common: The satiation of the fleshly appetites are good, necessary, reinvigorating, even spiritual. In fact, true spirituality is realized only by satisfying the flesh. These prune-faced Danes, forgotten by time and culture, finally experience a richness of life because some Catholic—read pagan—cook has come into their lives and shown them a world they never knew. If only they had not feared their own appetites, they might have had happier, richer lives.
But no—that is not the moral of this tale. The two men who had long abandoned hope of winning the hands of Martina and Philippa—the military man and the opera impresario—are, at the end of their lives, quite unsatisfied. Yet they have enjoyed worldly success, they have had their fill of the good things of this life. But they have not had love—specifically, the selfless love of these two sisters, the product of this supposedly desiccated and backward existence.
If the sisters and their community can be faulted it is in this: They were living on the spirit of their pastor, not on the Spirit of his Master. That they had to be reminded of. And, as is always the case, it comes to them as a grace from without, a sheer gift.
The general sums up the beauty of this story when he finally addresses Martina at the feast’s end: “I have been with you every day of my life. … You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
All is grace—even what we have been denied. The sisters missed nothing having stayed with their father’s flock. Yes, they might have married and had children, but they now will enjoy spiritual children—even such a one as this military man. And the general—he followed his vocation, he made his choice, and though he is alone, that too is a grace. Had the sisters married their respective suitors, they may have enjoyed certain pleasures but would not have necessarily fulfilled their vocations. “Everything we have chosen has been granted to us,” the general reminds us. All is grace.
Babette’s Feast does not chide the “all-too-spiritual” for neglecting the good things of the earth, for neglecting the flesh. Babette’s feast is just that—one feast, one meal. Babette spends all she has to give back to these people what she gained from them—a home. It is also an opportunity to practice her great vocation in all its strength and glory one last time. Babette has no intention of going back to Paris. The Paris she knew—and the restaurant to which she was chef—yes! the chef the general remembered so vividly was in fact Babette—are gone, as is her $10,000 francs. It came to her as a gift, it was expended as a gift. All have taken, eaten, and are reconciled with themselves and their “choices.” Martina comforts Babette in the knowledge that, even though her days as the best chef in Paris are over, there is a banquet, a feast, at which she may once again ply her trade—and that one will never end.
It is only when we realize that God is profligate with his grace that true gratitude becomes possible and true forgiveness can be extended to others. “In my father’s house are many mansions”—God does not scrimp when it comes to our salvation and the glory to be enjoyed in his kingdom. Foretastes of this are allowed us in this life in the form of good food, good drink, good friends, the love of spouse and children—but all of these must be held lightly, as they can be taken from us—even denied us—in an instant.
What truly prepares us for this joy is the sacrament of Holy Communion, where real food and real drink are given to us, and that food and drink are God himself. In Christ’s broken body we find that mercy and truth meet, and the bliss of forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God’s own sinless life kiss. “Mercy imposes no conditions,” the general says during a toast at the feast. Neither does God. Let us feast on that.
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