Compare and Contrast
Big Night / Babette's Feast
In this essay, you will have to compare and contrast…
-Every essay assignment you ever received.
Welcome to Compare and Contrast, your biweekly journey into the joys of comparative cinema. Every other week, your host (that’s me) will look at two movies that have a connection with one another, whether that be thematic, structural or tendentious, and we’ll parse their ideas and outlooks out together. Well, not really together - I’m the one writing it. All movies are chosen with the utmost care and sensitivity, or by getting drunk and perusing Netflix.
How much meaning can a single meal hold? On one hand, today’s chefs are admired the way poets were 200 years ago, and a new cookbook can warrant think pieces at major magazines. A dish can produce sensations on the tongue that a painting can produce in the eye, and a table full of people can expound on the entree as easily as they can talk about the music in the background. It creates pleasure and evokes emotion.
But the very nature of food, it’s necessity for survival, it’s fleeting pleasures, keep it at a different level. There are no varying interpretations of the meaning of a meal. There is nothing that will last through time. Its vigorous defenders are almost always talking about something else, like tradition, or cultural hegemony, or family, or the value of craftsmanship in the automaton age. The best meal you ever ate might be memorable, but it probably wasn't important.
Big Night offers a potent argument for the latter point. It tells the story of two brothers from Italy who come to the Jersey shore to open an authentic Italian restaurant. Primo (the chef) and Secondo (the manager) argue over the food they serve and the company they keep. Secondo dates American women, aspires to drive an American car, and wants to try serving something a little bit more popular - say, spaghetti and meatballs. Secondo prepares a risotto that would kill in Roma but confuses the simplistic American palate (“They will learn,” he complains when confronted), and then spends his off hours with a fellow immigrant barber drinking grappa.
As their business begins to fail, Secondo looks to their more popular neighbor Pascal’s, run by the namesake, a fellow immigrant who doesn’t see a problem in serving heaping piles of spaghetti. He’s also a loudmouth who provides the movie’s best lines, gems like “It’s the land of fucking opportunity!” and “Bite your teeth into the ass of life and drag it to you.” He’s a fool, but a successful one. Secondo spends much of the first half of the movie staring at their bright neon sign and smoking, a Gatsby looking at his potential American dream. But to achieve it, he has to cut off everything from his old life, starting with the food -- and by extension, his brother.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. I also want to introduce Babette, another chef with a foreigner's outlook and a desire to keep to her own way. In Babette’s Feast, a small Danish town next to the sea sees a series of visitors - a rebellious young military officer and a famous Parisian singer, both of whom court a pair of beautiful sisters whose father runs a Christian sect (with cultish overtones) that dominates the town. Forty years later, and with the death of the town’s patriarch, the sect begins to splinter under the stress of few new converts and their own old age.
Babette, a young Parisian woman sent from the bloodshed of that city by the now elderly singer, arrives as a cook indebted to the sisters and serves them for many years. The sisters announce that in honor of their late father, they’ll hold a great dinner, which Babette volunteers to produce. And she pays for the whole things with a winning lottery ticket that would have allowed her to go back home again to Paris.
Going home might have been ideal. In her first days in Denmark, she’s taught how to make the local favorite: bread and ale soup. It’s pretty much like it sounds. She grits her teeth and cooks it, but she begins to branch out, teaching herself the local language by haggling for fish pulled out of the North Sea and complaining about the quality of bacon. Furthermore, as a Frenchwoman and a Papist (a real shame we haven’t held on to this particular epithet), the natives naturally distrust her. But soon enough, she’s making rustic dishes that please both her own palate and the rigid, fearful Danes.
But this special meal calls for something more. After winning the lottery, Babette promises a great feast and sends her nephew to Paris to pick up ingredients. When they come back, they drag carts full of ingredients that horrify the staid, puritanical Danes: small sparrows, butchered pigs, and a live sea turtle. In the movie’s only purely humorous scene, the townspeople get together and pray for salvation against the upcoming meal, as the sisters apologize profusely for the situation they’ve put everyone in. These are, needless to say, picky eaters. With the strange ingredients also comes the rebellious soldier of 40 years ago, now a general and a refined man of taste.
Secondo and Primo aren’t preparing a feast for a dead man, but a live man - a famous singer that Pascal had promised would stop by. It’s also one last shot at their dream before the bank forecloses. With positive word of mouth from a big celebrity, Secondo sees a way to stay in business. More importantly for Primo, he’s able to show his skill to people who care about such a thing, rather than the pedestrian customers who normally populate his restaurant. In order to make an event of the whole shebang, the brothers invite everyone they know, girlfriends, colleagues, and a local reporter. They buy bottles of wine, huge quantities of meat and eggs, and start cooking risotto by the handfuls.
Both chefs are cooking for a wary audience. Babette is cooking for these puritans, for whom bread and beer is the height of culinary achievement. They distrust not only this strange, elaborate French food, but the idea of earthly pleasures at all. Their only aesthetic practice is the hymns they sing throughout the film. Babette is marked as an outsider because of her accent and her religion, but most of all because she cares about a seemingly worthless thing. In the same way, Primo’s accent means little to his customers, but the way he cares about tradition and his own cultural values keep him at arm’s length from the people around him. More importantly, because these characters are not the true protagonists in either film, their minds are kept partially hidden from us, the viewer. We’re just as wary about the meals these characters are producing, whether they’ll be alienating or comforting, successful at bringing people together or pulling them apart. More troubling, Babette’s audience is coming apart at the seams as her own life is going so well. Secondo’s new life is falling apart while his dinner guests party like old friends.
Each dinner scene is a remarkable showing of excess, filmed to reflect their alternating moods of the room. In contrast to the repressive greys and blues of the rest of the film, the dinner in Babette’s Feast is an orgy of color. The camera practically obsesses over the bright red wine and the deep red sauce. The general, who is the only one who can talk about the food with any real knowledge, is directly linked to it through his elaborate, brightly colored uniform. He is practically an ambassador or embodiment of the meal, both presenting a bit of Parisian flare to these dour people. And as the meal continues and the wine flows, the faces of locals light up, and all the colors brighten. It is literally a life-changing event for these people.
Primo’s and Secondo’s dinner is filmed instead like a great bacchanal, with gin and wine and bright costumes and loud talking. The behavior and the colors actually match the meal, rather than counteract it. Where Babette’s food is the only thing we can think about, Big Night presents it as a single part of the celebration, living in tandem with the jokes and drink. But this is also a downside. When the famous singer fails to show up, the dinner itself falls apart. This is no life-changing triumph for Primo to bask in - it’s ruined them financially, and leads the brothers into a fight that ends their professional relationship. Rather than saving a whole town, they’ve signed their own foreclosure. “This place is eating us alive!” Primo screams, and it’s impossible to miss the imagery. For him, the food that he thought would make him and his brother a success in his new country has only forced him further away. While Babette’s meal brought her into the fold of her distrustful neighbors, Primo has been further alienated. And more importantly, despite the delight of his party-goers, his food was not able to change the mind of the people he needed to impress. They didn’t learn.
But there’s one final scene, of course. After losing so much, their lives in a spiral, Primo getting ready to leave behind his brother in an uncertain situation with no personal connections left to speak of, Secondo prepares three eggs for his brother and the busboy. In complete silence, we watch the eggs cook, Secondo split them between plates, the co workers literally breaking last night’s bread for the last time together. And as they eat, Primo puts his arm around his brother. Rather than focusing on the pan or the bread, the camera holds our gaze on the three figures. The food here is secondary to the relationships it cements together. These two brothers, caught on opposite sides of a cultural divide, are brought together over this simple meal, something they likely made for each other a thousand times in their lifetimes. It’s the only thing that can speak to both of them when they interpret so many things differently. And if Secondo’s chosen craft is alienating, at least this one relationship can still be strengthened by it.
In the very first scenes of Big Night, the two brothers work in silence, every so often nudging each other about the amount of salt in the stock or how the garlic is cut. These are mundane moments in their relationship and in the process of making food. But they also link them in their obsession, their original dream to bring authentic food to unenlightened foreigners. It’s the same sense you can see in Babette’s face in the back room of that Danish farmhouse, when she knows that the food she is sending out is better than anyone has tasted, including the sophisticated general. You can even see it in her face when she makes that awful ale and bread soup, because she knows she can make a better version than Jutland has ever seen. Like paint strokes that add up to water lilies, it’s these small, fleeting moments that somehow add up to something meaningful - even artistic.
When Babette reveals that she’s spent every penny on this meal, the sisters ask her why, now that she’ll be poor for the rest of her life? “An artist is never poor,” she replies. And when Secondo explains his obsession with the food of his old country, he says that “to eat food is to be close to God.” Is a single meal a work of art? I think these movies see that question differently. But what they seem to have in common is the idea that any person who takes the mundane meals and the big nights equally serious are worthy of a title more expressive than just ‘chef.’ They’re artists.