Panah Panahi

Films of Panah Panahi:
  • Hit the Road (Jadde Khaki)  - Panah Panahi (2021)

“The Pianist” - Roman Polanski (2002)

The Pianist (2002), the story of a Polish concert pianist’s harrowing experiences during the German Nazi occupation of Warsaw in World War II, has been perhaps famed film director Roman Polanski’s most lauded work [1,2,3,4,5,6,7].  It won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d'Or, and it was nominated for seven U.S. Oscars, winning three of them (for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor).  The film also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards for Best Film and Best Direction, and it won seven French Césars (the French national film awards), including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.  In addition, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) currently has The Pianist ranked 34th on its list of all-time greatest films [8].  So we are dealing here with a film that may be headed for status as a classic.  

The story of The Pianist is based on the experiences of a real person, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was a young Jewish pianist living in Warsaw when the Nazis attacked and invaded the city in 1939.  In fact Ronald Harwood’s screenplay for the film was adapted from Szpilman’s personal memoir, Smierc Miasta. Pamietniki Wladyslawa Szpilmana 1939–1945 (Death of a City: Memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman 1939–1945), which first appeared in Polish in 1946.  A significant additional background feature that undoubtedly had further impact on the telling of this tale was Roman Polanski’s own personal experience as a young Jewish boy who somehow managed to escape from the Nazi Krakow Ghetto during the war.  On account of this background, The Pianist may be one of Polanski’s most personally felt film accounts.

The film begins in 1939 with Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) performing a piano piece on-the-air at a Warsaw radio station.  Just then the building is subject to a cannon fire attack by the invading German army.  Everyone flees except Szpilman, who continues playing on the piano.  But finally, with the cannon fire now destroying the wall of the studio Szpilman is in, he is forced to face reality and flee, himself.  This hesitancy here on the part of Szpilman to shift his focus and react to the threats around him will be a metaphor that is repeated throughout the story.

Szpilman belonged to a well-off Jewish family, and Jews had long been well-treated in Poland.  But the invading German army are shown to be almost uniformly ruthless and cruel – and they are particularly vicious towards Jews.  They seem to shoot and kill civilians on the street just out of whim – and then they laugh about it.  The people are powerless to respond.  Soon the Szpilman family is moved, along with all other Jews, to the walled-off and encapsulating Warsaw Ghetto.

In 1942 Szpilman and his family are to be transported to the Treblinka extermination camp when an acquaintance who is collaborating with the police recognizes Wladyslaw and pulls him away just as he is about to be forced into a departing train car.  In the subsequent confusion, Wladyslaw manages to escape and find a temporary hiding place in the city.  This is just one of the many out-of-the blue strokes of good fortune in the tale that save Wladyslaw from imminent annihilation.

Over the next few years Wladyslaw is compelled to move from one hastily-found hiding place to another just before he is about to be exposed to the authorities.  Sometimes he is helped by non-Jewish friends that he encounters, but most of the time he finds himself alone in abandoned buildings and without food.  During this time, he sometimes looks out through the window of his room to see activities of the failed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1943) and the Warsaw Uprising (1944), both of which are cruelly crushed by the Nazi authorities.  Ultimately, it appears that the whole city of Warsaw is destroyed.  And always the savagery of the German military is on full display.

Over the course of these years, the fugitive Wladyslaw has great difficulty finding any food in the abandoned buildings that he finds to hide in, and he is always on the brink of starvation.  So he becomes more and more emaciated.  It is said that the actor who played the part of Wladyslaw Szpilman, Adrien Brody, who was already slim, lost thirty pounds so that he could present a realistic emaciated physiognomy for this part of his role.  

Eventually while trying to open a can of pickles he has found, Wladyslaw is finally discovered by a German military officer. Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann).  When Wladyslaw tells the man that he is a pianist, the skeptical Hosenfeld demands that Wladyslaw demonstrate his prowess on a piano located in the apartment they find themselves in.  So Wladyslaw plays a Chopin piece for him, and that stirs the sympathies in Capt. Hosenfeld, who agrees to hide Wladyslaw in the attic and secretly supply him food on a regular basis.  In 1945 with the German army now retreating, Hosenfeld comes to Wladyslaw before departing and gives him his army overcoat to keep warm.  (This German military attire would later cause problems for Wladyslaw when the allied forces arrive.)  Note that Wilm Hosenfeld is just about the only German in the film who is presented sympathetically as a humane person.  

At the close of the film and with the war over, a formally-attired Wladyslaw is shown playing the piano with orchestral accompaniment at a posh recital hall.  For Wladyslaw, at least, life has regained its former beauty.  

Altogether, The Pianist is a polished and fascinating work, with excellent production values featuring the cinematography of Pawel Edelman and the film editing of Hervé de Luze.  The music includes a number of melodious pieces written by famed Polish classical composer Frederic Chopin.  And director Roman Polanski has gone to great lengths to conjure up an atmospheric setting that evokes the ravages of a war-torn city of that time.  In addition the acting of protagonist Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman is particularly notable, because, even though he doesn’t have a lot of spoken dialogue lines to speak, he conveys the increasing angst of a man constantly faced with life-threatening circumstances. 

Nevertheless, and despite these undeniable virtues, I think The Pianist is not a great movie – it is a very good film, but not a great one.  The problem here is the absence of a compelling narrative structure to the events that are covered in the film.  For me the best films are those that portray the protagonist(s) engaged in some metaphorical “journey” for which they have some options concerning which “paths” they may choose to take.  I have remarked on this theme before, notably in connection with my review of Nomadland (2020) [9]:
“Almost all films (as well as dramas, stories, and novels) have a narrative that provides a structure for the events depicted.  The metastructure of these narratives is often characterized metaphorically as a journey.  There are one or more protagonists on such a 'journey' who are struggling to reach a desired 'destination', and there are usually other agents along the way who assist or stand in the way of progress.  Much has been written about the narrative-as-journey metaphor [10,11,12,13,14], notably the more formalized characterization of it known as the 'hero’s journey' [15] that was popularized by Joseph Campbell [16].”
In the story of The Pianist, however, our protagonist, Wladyslaw, is relatively passive.  Things just happen to him, and he is never shown to be in any situations where he can exercise any agency, where he can choose one among several optional “paths” to take.  All we see is a perpetual victim who manages to survive one catastrophic life-threatening situation after another mainly by pure luck.  Wladyslaw’s adversaries are cruel and, at bottom, inscrutable.  They are like dark, unfathomable forces beyond his and our comprehension.  All Wladyslaw can do is helplessly react and try to hide.  This character of a darkened world with more or less unfathomable adversaries has been seen in other Polanski films (e.g. Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974)) and may be something of a pattern for him.

Of course, Polanski could have added some narrative elements to The Pianist that would have made Wladyslaw’s experiences more of an agency-oriented journey (if not a “hero’s journey”), but that would have compromised the historical authenticity of Wladyslaw’s tale.  What Polanski did do was insert a couple of narrative elements that were presumably intended to add some characterological depth to the Wladyslaw character.  One concerned a couple of sequences involving some flirtatious encounters Wladyslaw had with an attractive young woman, Dorota (Emilia Fox).  But these encounters don’t lead anywhere.  Another inserted narrative element was Wladyslaw’s aforementioned encounters with the taciturn German Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.  But while these encounters with Hosenfeld were among the most interesting human interactions in the film, they represented an isolated occurrence and failed to give us a feeling for the earlier parts of Wladyslaw’s quest.  So the two narrative insertions did not fulfill my desire for narrative material that would flesh out Wladyslaw’s mental journey.

Nevertheless, The Pianist does feature a meaningful and heartfelt message that is a key to the film and must not be overlooked – it is one that is concerned with a fundamental aspect of human nature.  Despite the vast differences that stretch across humanity with respect to language, education, abilities, customs, norms, and culture, there is something that we all share, and that is the capability to have a direct aesthetic experience in response to something we see or hear (or even taste) in the world.  An example might be something like seeing a beautiful flower or waterfall or hearing beautiful music.  These aesthetic experiences are immediate and intuitive, and they do not require cogitation or thinking about what is being experienced [17].  Thus they are universally available and open to everyone, regardless of one’s background.  This means that, despite their hugely discordant backgrounds, a Jewish musical artist like the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and a German Nazi military officer like Wilm Hosenfeld can share direct aesthetic experiences, such as the Chopin musical piece that Szpilman plays for Hosenfeld, experiences that offer opportunities for bonding and that can ultimately open the door to shared understanding.

This was the message that Szpilman and Polanski offered to the viewer – that even amidst the most horrific atrocity-filled conflicts, shared aesthetic experiences can offer an opening toward salvation.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. A. O. Scott, “FILM REVIEW; Surviving the Warsaw Ghetto Against Steep Odds”, The New York Times, (27 December 2002).         
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “The Pianist”, The Guardian, (24 January 2003 ).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “The Pianist”, RogerEbert.com, (3 January 2003).   
  4. David Edelstein, “The Sound and the Saved”, Slate, (27 December 2002).   
  5. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “The Pianist (2002)”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  6. Dennis Schwartz, “Pianist, The”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (16 December 2002).   
  7. Duminica, “The Pianist, written by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman, 9 out of 10", Notes on Films, (16 July 2017).   
  8. “IMDb Top 250 Movies”, IMDb, (n.d.).  
  9. The Film Sufi, “''Nomadland’ - Chloé Zhao (2020)”, The Film Sufi, (30 September 2021).   
  10. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory),  (1990), Northwestern.
  11. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality", Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21, (1991).
  12. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  13. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press. 
  14. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  15. “Hero’s Journey”, Wikipedia, (17 September 2021).    
  16. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1st edition, Bollingen Foundation (1949), 2nd edition, Princeton University Press (1990), 3rd edition, New World Library (2008).
  17. Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Chapter 5, New World Library, (2004).   

Roman Polanski

Films of Roman Polanski:

“Doctor Zhivago” - David Lean (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965) is an epic historical romantic drama directed by British film director David Lean.  Lean’s meticulous cinematic craftsmanship had already been manifested in his earlier prize-winning epics, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1965); but here indeed in Doctor Zhivago the term “romantic epic” is a particularly definitive characterization of this film.  That is because it emphatically exemplifies many of the features that go into the making of a romantic epic film – (a) a dynamic and disruptive historical setting, (b) emphatically stylized principal characters, and (c) passionate, romantic relationships.  In these respects, the film that most closely comes to my mind for comparison with Doctor Zhivago is Gone with the Wind (1939).  And like that earlier classic romantic epic film, Doctor Zhivago was (generally) a success with the critics and with the public.  The film that David Lean fashioned here, with the help of Robert Bolt’s screenplay, Freddie Young’s cinematography, Norman Savage’s film editing (despite numerous jump-cuts), and the musical score by Maurice Jarre (who also wrote the haunting musical score for Sundays and Cybele (1962)), was a masterpiece; and it earned 10 Oscar (U.S. Academy Awards) nominations and winning five of them, as well as numerous other accolades.
 
The film Doctor Zhivago was based on Boris Pasternak’s Nobel-prize-winning novel of the same name that was published in 1957 and is about a Russian physician and poet who lived during the turbulent years of World War I and the subsequent Russian Communist Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War.  Both the novel and the film take a skeptical view of the Communist Revolution, and so it was not surprising that the early distributions of both of these two works in the Soviet Union were suppressed.  And in addition, since both of them were made during the height of the U.S.-Russian Cold War, there was an inordinate amount of critical interest in the West in these political aspects of the story.  But we must remember that the film Doctor Zhivago was more than just a political saga about disruptive social conflict; rather, like Gone with the Wind, it was really about in-depth human feelings and experiences of some passionate people who lived inn the midst of this turmoil.

As mentioned, the story of this film concerns the experiences of a young Russian doctor, Yuri Zhivago, (played by Omar Sharif), during the early part of the 20th century.  When Yuri is a boy, his mother passes away, and he is taken in by family friends Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna (Siobhán McKenna) Gromeko.  The Gromeko's have a daughter, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and Yuri and Tonya soon become fast friends.  After a period of schooling in Paris, Tonya returns to Moscow, and Yuri and Tonya develop a mutual romantic attachment which leads to their becoming engaged to be married.  

In an initially separate thread, beautiful 17-year-old Larissa ("Lara", and played by Julie Christie) is coercively seduced sexually by her own mother’s paramour, the cynical opportunist Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger).  When Lara’s mother learns of Komarovsky’s infidelity, she attempts suicide, and one of the doctors summoned to attend to the woman is Yuri Zhivago.  This is the first time that Yuri becomes aware of Lara.  Anyway, Lara’s real romantic interest is in a younger, idealistic political revolutionary, Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay), and the two of them eventually get married and have a child.


When World War I breaks out, the idealistic Pasha enlists in the military, but he is soon reported missing-in-action.  So Lara enlists as a military nurse in hopes of finding her husband.  Meanwhile Yuri Zhivago is drafted into the military to serve as a doctor.  When Yuri meets Lara out in the field, they join up to work together in a field hospital, where the two of them soon fall  in love.  This is the major romantic relationship of the story.  However, since both Yuri and Lara have spouses to whom they feel they should be faithful, they separate wistfully at the end of their term of service, and Yuri returns home.

At this point, though. we are still in the early stages of a complex drama, and there is still much more to come.  The Russian Revolution and Civil War break out, and the whole society is further disrupted.  Because of Communist disapproval of his poetry, the Zhivagos take refuge at a Gromeko-owned home in the Ural Mountains.  In that area Yuri encounters Lara, and they resume their romantic passion for each other.  He also encounters Lara’s supposedly missing husband, Pasha Antipov, who now identifies himself by the name “Strelnikov” and has become a high Bolshevik commander.  When Pasha had been seen earlier, he had been an idealistic revolutionary, but skeptical of the communist Bolsheviks; however, now, as Strelnikov, he is seen to have become a dogmatic and ruthless Bolshevik fanatic.

Revolutionary turmoil has further disruptive effects on our characters.  Though Tonya manages to escape with her children to France, Yuri is captured by communist forces and impressed into field medical service.  After a couple of years of forced service, however, Yuri escapes from his captors and harrowingly makes his way back to Lara, whereupon they again resume their romantic affair.  

Later Komarovsky surprisingly shows up where Yuri and Lara are living, and this time, even more surprisingly, the normally opportunistic Komarovsky seeks to help someone other than himself.  He informs Lara that her estranged husband Strelnikov’s political enemies are out to kill him, and since her life is thereby endangered, too, he offers to facilitate her escape.  In the escape event, though, Lara and Yuri become separated again, this time for good.  And so it goes.

The whole story of Doctor Zhivago, which covers the full span of Yuri Zhivago’s life, from his boyhood to his death many years after the primary events I have described here, is encapsulated in a narrative framing device set in the 1940s that involves a high officer of the state police, Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), who is Yuri Zhivago’s half-brother and who is looking for the lost daughter of Yuri and Lara.  Yevgraf finds a young woman, Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham), who was separated from her parents when she was a very small child and who may be the missing daughter.  To help prod Tanya’s memory, Yevgraf tells her the story of Yuri Zhivago’s life.  This narrative framing device has seemed artificial to some viewers, but I believe it contains a crucial hint as to what this film is ultimately about.  


Many critics have liked the film (e.g. [1,2,3,4,5,6]), although some of them did complain that the film’s running time, which comprises about three-and-a-quarter hours of screen time, is too long [5,6,7].  And there were some naysayers.  For example, notable critic Andrew Sarris was sarcastically critical of how he felt the film overlooked Pasternak’s original message [8].  And New York Times critic Bosley Crowther complained about what he felt was the film’s lack of depth [9].  But despite this range, none of the reviews that I encountered made much mention of what I think is the film’s ultimate message.

So what is this tale, ultimately about?  It seems up-front to be essentially a tale about the love between Yuri and Lara.  In this sense it is like Gone with the Wind, which despite its highly dramatic backdrop, is really a story about the romantic relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.  And also, similarly to the situation in Gone with the Wind (with its iconic characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton), we have here in Doctor Zhivago several iconic characters:
  • Doctor Yuri Zhivago – the poetic humanist who sought the welfare of all concerned;
     
  • Lara – the passionate romantic who couldn’t help giving way to her feelings;
     
  • Komarovsky – the selfish opportunist who always sought to maximize his own utility;
     
  • Strelnikov (Pasha) – a person who dogmatically sought the establishment of an uncompromising political order that, even though it may trample the welfare and “rights” of many. was believed to be best for the society as a whole;
     
  • Tonya – the loyal, loving, and considerate wife.
This character breakdown, as well as the final spoken lines that close the narrative framing device, point us to what is Doctor Zhivago’s real message.  That message revolves around Yuri Zhivago’s character and what it represents as to the meaning of life.  What is it, after all, that makes human life so special, so different from that of the animals?  What is it that we should pursue and treasure?  We know that it must be more than just the acquisition of material comforts and the satisfaction of physical lusts, as was the practice of the ruthless utilitarian Komarovsky.  He was successful in his selfish pursuits, but he was little more than a clever animal.  We also know that it must go beyond the collectivist vision of someone like Strelnikov, who was also operating on the material plane, but at the same time suppressing the freedom of individuals.  As for love, as embodied by Lara and Tonya (and also by Yuri), we know that that is special, but it is often ephemeral and localized.  

But Yuri added something more, and that was his ability to see and appreciate all the beautiful experiential moments of human life that were happening around him all the time – and then to aesthetically express his feelings about those experiences by means of his poetry.  This was a “gift” that he presumably shared with Tanya Komarova, the girl who was probably Yuri’s daughter and who had a gift for music.

Life is beautiful all the time, but we too often neglect the constant flow of beautiful moments by our petty involvements in the mundane.  Our lives can be enhanced by being exposed to those people who have this gift for sharing their feelings about life’s beauty in aesthetic form.  This was the film Doctor Zhivago’s final message, and its final scene shows the gifts of Boris Pasternak and David Lean in displaying it.  As critic Powers remarked [1],
Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience.”

Notes:
  1. James Powers, “‘Doctor Zhivago’: THR’s 1965 Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, (23 December 1965).  
  2. “Cinema: To Russia with Love”, Time, (31 December 1965).   
  3. Arthur D. Murphy, "Film Reviews: Doctor Zhivago", Variety, (29 December 1965).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “Doctor Zhivago”, RogerEbert.com, (7 April 1995).   
  5. Philip K. Scheuer, "'Zhivago'---a Poetic Picture", Los Angeles Times, (24 December 1965).   
  6. Richard L. Coe, "Doctor Zhivago", The Washington Post, (4 February 1966).   
  7. Clifford Terry, “Acting Excellent, So Is Production in ‘Doctor Zhivago’”, Chicago Tribune, (28 January 1966 ).   
  8. Andrew Sarris, “films”, The Village Voice, (30 December 1965).  
  9. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ Has Premiere, Adaptation of Pasternak Novel at the Capitol”, The New York Times, (23 December 1965).  
                                                                                                                                                                 

David Lean

 Films of David Lean:

“Babette’s Feast” - Gabriel Axel (1987)

Babette’s Feast (Babettes Gæstebud, 1987), by Danish writer-director Gabriel Axel, is an intriguing film for me due to its contemplative quality.  By this I don’t mean that the film adopts a contemplative stance or presentation perspective, but rather that it induced in me a tendency to contemplate about life’s meaning throughout my watching of the film.  Axel’s script was a close adaptation of Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (the pen name of Karen Blixen) famous story “Babette's Feast” [1], which first  appeared in Ladies' Home Journal magazine in 1950.  Isak Dinesen, of course, is most renowned for her marvelous memoir Out of Africa (1937) concerning her experiences in British East Africa.  The film Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1987 U.S. Academy Awards, and it has been highly regarded ever since by the critical community [2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12].  And also, in light of the theological aspects of this film’s story, it is interesting to note that Babette’s Feast is Pope Francis’s all-time favorite film [11].

Babette’s Feast is set in Denmark in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and it concerns two elderly, unmarried sisters who have lived all their lives there in a remote village on the coast of Jutland.  The two sisters, Martine (played by Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), were raised by their now-deceased father, who was a conservative pastor who led a Pietistic Lutheran ecclesiastical congregation in the village.  After their father’s passing, the two sisters continued with the leading of the aging and slowly dwindling congregation in accordance with their father’s strict standards.

The film’s story covers three time periods, during which significant events took place for the two sisters, Martine and Philippa:

  1. A period some 49 years before “the present” (“the present” takes place in the late 19ths-century), during which time some significant events take place for Martine and Philippa.
     
  2. A time 35 years later when a French woman refugee, Babette Hersant, comes to the village and begins working for the two sisters as their cook and maid.
     
  3. “The present”, when Babette prepares her special feast.
Period 1 - 49 years earlier than “the present”
In an extended flashback we see the two daughters as late teenagers living under the strict but kindly guidance of their pastor father.  Both daughters are beautiful, but they are kept under wraps by their conservative father.  The only way to meet them in a social setting is to see them in Church.  One dashing young suitor is cavalry officer Lorens Löwenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson), whose recent rowdy behavior has caused his family to send him to the remote village to “cool off” at his aunt’s place. Lorens is quickly smitten by the beauty of Martine (in this section played by Vibeke Hastrup), but he doesn’t know how to approach the reserved girl.  After some fumbled attempts, Lorens realizes that his dreams of being with Martine are hopeless, and he decides to leave and devote himself to a professional career based on honor and glory.

A little later another visitor comes to the village, this time a famous French opera singer, Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont), who has come to get away from the Parisian hustle and bustle for a while.  He happens to hear Philippa (in this section played by Hanne Stensgaard) singing in church and is overwhelmed by the wondrous quality of her voice.  Achille manages to convince Philippa’s father to let him give her singing lessons so that he can make her into an operatic  superstar.  Achille wants to do this because of his lifetime devotion to artistic expression.  But, of course, he is also romantically attracted to Philippa.  However, Achille’s passionate and exuberantly affectionate style of personal interaction is too much for the demure Philippa, and she has to discontinue the lessons.  So Achille has to return to Paris unfulfilled.

Period 2 - 14 years earlier than “the present”
Time passes, and after their father’s death, Martine and Philippa have taken over running the local religious parish.  One day about 14 years prior to “the present”, a woman from France, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran), knocks on their door and bearing a letter of introduction from Achille Papin.  I should mention here that even though she first appears rather well into the piece,  Stéphane Audran is the real star of this film.  Note that the actress Audran had been the partner and wife of French filmmaker Claude Chabrol for more than twenty years and had starred in most of his films, including Les Cousins (1959) and La Rupture (1970).  In this film, although the initial focus is on the sisters Martine and Philippa,  Audran, as Babette, plays a pivotal, but enigmatic, character around whom the whole story hinges.

The letter of introduction explains that Babette is a refugee from the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and that her husband and son had been killed in the conflict.  Fearing for her life, Babette has fled Paris, and Achille, recalling the kindness of the two Danish sisters, asks them to take her in.  The sisters explain to Babette that they have almost no money, but Babette tells them that she is willing to work for them for nothing as their cook and maid.  So the sisters take her in and begin patiently explaining to Babette how to make the simple, bland cuisine that they are used to.

Period 3 - “the present”
So now we come to “the present” time, and Babette has been working diligently for Martine and Philippa for fourteen years, and she has become a familiar background character to the dwindling number of people of the local parish that the sisters look after.  One day, however, Babette receives a message from a friend in Paris who has been buying a lottery ticket every year for Babette that informs her that she, Babette, has just won the Paris lottery of 10,000 francs.  

Everyone expects that, with civil society in Paris now calmed down, Babette will soon be returning to Paris, but Babette doesn’t say anything about this.  Instead, she indicates that she is going to prepare a grand French feast for Martine and Philippa and all the church parishioners on the occasion of the father pastor’s 100th birthday.  Noone knows quite what to expect about this feast, but it soon becomes apparent that it is going to be beyond the imaginations of any of the locals.

The film now devotes considerable time to showing Babette’s lavish preparations for the banquet.  Babette imports all sorts of exotic ingredients, as well as elegant plates and cutlery.  As the sisters and parishioners become aware of all these preparations, they begin to worry that it will be a sinful event, and they make a vow not to mention the food or express any appreciation at the dinner.

At the event, Martine’s long-ago admirer Lorens Löwenhielm, unexpectedly appears.  Lorens, who is now a famous general and is married to a lady of the royal court, has not seen Martine for forty-nine years, but he is in the village visiting his aunt, who is a church congregation parishioner.  As the other avowedly taciturn guests eat their delicious food and sip the elegant wine, their solemnity gradually fades away, and they warm up in conviviality.  Old offenses are forgiven, past grudges are mended, and almost-forgotten romantic feelings are rekindled.  But while all the other guests remain publicly silent about the feast, Lorens, who is familiar with fancy cuisine, stands up to make an after-dinner speech and toast. 

He remarks that he has tasted outstanding cuisine all over the world, but in his experience the food of this present meal is so good that it can only be matched by the food from one other place – a special café in Paris.  (The viewer will later learn that Babette was in fact the chef at that Parisian café.)  Then Lorens offers his toast, which is not so much about the food, but how the wonders of the feast has opened his eyes to the wonders of the world [11]:

    “There comes a time when your eyes are opened
    And we come to realize that mercy is infinite.
    We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude.
    Mercy imposes no conditions.
    And, lo! - Everything we have chosen has been granted to us.
    And everything we rejected has also been granted.
    Yes, we even get back what we rejected.
    For mercy and truth are met together.
    And righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

After the feast is over, the sisters assume that Babette will return to Paris., but Babette tells them that she used all of her 10,000 francs to pay for the expenses of putting on the feast and that she is not going away.  She did it, because she wanted to give everything in her power to the world in which she had been living.  This was, for her, the ultimate act of self-expression.

Although the basic story of Babette's Feast seems simple, the film has fascinated critics and won an Oscar.  Some people are drawn to the numerous allusions in the film to Christian symbolism, including The Last Supper (Babette's feast offered dinner for 12 guests).  But I think that the profundity of the film lies elsewhere.  To me the film features four distinct outlooks on what we should seek in life, and these outlooks are personified by four separate personages:

  • Martine and Philippa
    The two sisters, following their pastor father’s prescriptions, humbly seek to adhere to the strict rules of evangelical Christianity.  Although they devote themselves to helping the enfeebled and impoverished in their community, there is something limited and mechanical about this policy
     
  • Lorens Löwenhielm
    After Löwenhielm’s failed infatuation with Martine, he devoted himself to the attainment of personal glory and honors.  When he is seen in the latter part of the film, it is evident that he had attained what he had sought, but we get the feeling (something his closing toast confirms) that he senses that there is still something more to life than that.  
     
  • Achille Papin
    For Papin the ultimate achievement to be sought in life was ecstatic artistic expression in accordance with one’s own aesthetic gifts.  But this is a very personal mode of being and does not significantly involve the serious engagement with others or with a wider spectrum.
     
  • Babette
    Babette's mission was too use all her abilities in order to selflessly, even anonymously, bring joy to others.  And she did this through the wonders of food preparation and taste.  Her feast was her personal gift, not just to the parishioners, but to the world.

With regard to the first three of these perspectives, Tasha Robinson remarks [8]:

“The narrative is also about the emptiness of most pursuits: General Lorens is dissatisfied and confused after devoting his life to a spectacular career. The Puritans are bitter and judgmental after devoting their lives to religion. Martine and Filippa find satisfaction in devoting their lives to their father, but are left bereft after his death, watching the consensus he built crumble.” 

And in this vein of multiple life perspectives, Mark Le Fanu further adds [9]:

“Thus there are two stories, at least, going on in the closing stages of the film. Babette is busy showing us that the artist is able to respond to adversity with self-denying style and generosity, while Löwenhielm, in his after-dinner speech to the guests, is demonstrating that our choices in life—even the bad ones—are all ultimately redeemable and beneficent. Somehow, these two positions meet; at a certain level, they are identical postulates. For if Löwenhielm never sees Babette (she remains in the kitchen, outside his range of vision), he guesses she’s there—invisible, like grace—for the simple reason that, years ago in Paris, he attended a similar feast, and there is only one person in the world who could have authored this one.”

Overall and despite its modest format, Babette's Feast is a very successful cinematic consideration of our ultimate goals in life.  Of course, this topic has been the subject of countless philosophical treatises where text is used to express such abstract notions.  It would seem to be even more difficult to try doing this if one is confined to using the physical visual imagery of film.  Nevertheless, Jean Schuler feels that Babette's Feast has actually managed to accomplish what Kierkegaard thought to be beyond the realms of possibility [4]:

Babette's Feast achieves what Kierkegaard treated as impossible: to make the hidden movements of faith visible. A film about goodness threatens to bore its audience; a film about holiness that manages to get it right would seem to be as impossible as roses blooming in December or sitting down to a banquet fit for kings in a Jutland cottage.”

However, Gabriel Axel, with the help of Isak Dinesen’s story, Henning Kristiansen’s cinematography, and Stéphane Audran’s performance, did get it right.

Perhaps it is best to summarize the essence of what they got right with this quote from Pope Francis, himself [13]:

“The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’ It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centred, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit”

Notes:

  1.  “Babette's Feast”, Encyclopedia.com, (n.d.).   
  2. Desson Howe, “Babette’s Feast”, Washington Post, (8 April 1988).   
  3. Rita Kempley, “Babette’s Feast”, Washington Post, (8 April 1988).   
  4. Jean Schuler, “Kierkegaard at Babette's Feast: The Return to the Finite”, Journal of Religion and Film, (October 1997).   
  5. Wendy M. Wright,  "Babette's Feast: A Religious Film”, Journal of Religion and Film, (October 1997).   
  6. Peter Bradshaw, “Babette's Feast – review”, The Guardian, (13 Decembet 2012).   
  7. Nathaniel Thompson, “Babette’s Feast", Turner Classic Movies, (8 November 2013).    
  8. Tasha Robinson, “Babette’s Feast”, The Dissolve, (23 July 2013)..   
  9. Mark Le Fanu, “Babette’s Feast: ‘Mercy and Truth Have Met Together’”, The Criterion Collection, (22 July 2013).  
  10. Samuel Wigley, “Then and now: Babette’s Feast reviewed”, British Film Institute, (3 April 2014).   
  11. Philip Kosloski, “Why does Pope Francis want us to watch the movie ‘Babette’s Feast’?”, Aaleteia, (21 November 2016).   
  12. Ezio Vailati, “Babette's Feast”, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, (n.d.).   
  13. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family, Our Sunday Visitor, (2016), p. 129.

Gabriel Axel

Films of Gabriel Axel:

“The Big Sleep” - Howard Hawks (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946) is a famous film noir directed by Howard Hawks – in fact some people think it is the greatest of all films noir [1,2,3,4,5,6].  It is based on famous detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), which featured Chandler’s favorite fictional protagonist, private detective Philip Marlowe.  In Hawks’s film version here, Marlowe is played by Humphrey Bogart, and this was one of the factors that made this film noir so popular – it turned out to be one of Bogart’s more famous roles.  Another factor in the film’s popularity was the romantic pairing of Bogart (aged 44) with Lauren Bacall (aged 20), a combo that had already achieved significant traction with the public from Hawks’s earlier To Have and Have Not (1944).  “Bogie and Bacall” were coupled offscreen, too, and they got married during this period.

Despite the fame of this film, though, there are aspects of it that make the work problematical.  For one thing, the plot of The Big Sleep (both that of the film and the novel) is so convoluted that most viewers can’t keep track of it.  This is partly a consequence of Chandler’s practice of basing each of his novels on several of his earlier-published short stories, each of which had its own plot.  And anyway, plot was less important for Chandler than atmosphere and characterization.  It seems that he wanted more to create a sense of tension rather than to tell a story.  So the task was considerable for the esteemed screenwriters who worked on the film:
  • William Faulkner, a novelist and short story writer who won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature,
  • Leigh Brackett, who later scripted another famous film noir based on a Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye (1973), and
  • Jules Furthman, a prolific screenwriter whose vast repertoire includes the  scripting of seven of Josef von Sternberg’s films.
Not only did Faulkner, Brackett, and Furthman need to tone down the explicit sexuality (including homosexuality) in Chandler’s original account, they also had to understand and try to make some sense of Chandler’s tangled plot in the novel.  One notable example of this difficulty occurred during the shooting of the film when Bogart and Hawks wanted to know who committed one of the seven key murders in the film [5].  That is, was Sternwood’s chauffeur murdered or was it a suicide?  It bothered  Bogart and Hawks so much that Hawks sent a telegram to Chandler to find out.  But it turned out that Chandler didn’t know, either!  As I said, Chandler was mainly concerned with atmosphere, not facts about who did what.

The story, such as it is, of The Big Sleep begins with Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) being summoned to the mansion of General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a wealthy invalid with two wanton young daughters – the lewd and self-indulgent  Carmen (Martha Vickers) and the divorced Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall).. Sternwood is concerned that Carmen is being threatened for the nonpayment of her gambling debts. Marlowe agrees to look into the matter.  

But things turn out to be not so simple as that.  Marlowe soon learns that Carmen was being blackmailed by her phony creditor, whom Marlowe soon finds murdered.  And Marlowe learns from Vivian that her younger sister Carmen has been blackmailed before by other mysterious gangsters and miscreants, who may or may not be involved in this current murder.  Throughout all the various violent events that come along and the corpses that pile up, Marlowe tries to figure out what is going on.  But he is always one step behind.  However, along the way, Marlowe and Vivian (who also turns out to be a victim of blackmailing) gradually develop an attachment for each other.

I won’t go over the plot details here, but I can say that in the end, things get somewhat resolved, although we do learn that Marlowe, Vivian, and Carmen each killed someone who was threatening them individually [2].  

So what is it that accounts for The Big Sleep’s popularity?  I don’t think it is the intricate plot, because the plot is too random and loose-ended.  Moreover, we don’t get much of a feeling for what motivates most of the events that transpire.  And I don’t think it is the “Bogie and Bacall” Mystique, either.  That relationship is very much in the background and never really occupies center stage.  

No, I think what accounts for The Big Sleep’s popularity is that the film is so heavily loaded with all the accoutrements of film noir stylistics.  There is a nonstop barrage of all the incidental elements that the aficionados of film noir look for and recognize when they encounter an instance of the genre – 
  • a dark, cynical, and obscure protagonist
  • attractive women with unclear pasts and ambiguous intentions
  • unexpected encounters with shady characters
  • unanticipated violence
  • cynical and innuendo-loaded wisecracks and dialogue
Thus film critic Roger Ebert loved the film precisely for these elements, as he remarked
[5]:
Working from Chandler's original words and adding spins of their own, the writers (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays: It's unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it's so wickedly clever. (Marlowe on the "nymphy" kid sister: "She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.") Unlike modern crime movies which are loaded with action, "The Big Sleep" is heavy with dialogue--the characters talk and talk, just like in the Chandler novels; it's as if there's a competition to see who has the most verbal style.
But I don’t see things that way.  An outstanding film cannot be just all clever talk; it has to have a compelling narrative, and The Big Sleep doesn’t have that.  The story of this film is too loose-ended and contorted.  So although the film has some entertaining moments (I did like the brief, separate interactions Marlowe had with Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.)), this is certainly not a great film noir.
★★★
 
Notes:
  1. Leonard Maltin (ed.), “The Big Sleep (1946)”, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, Plume, (2005), p. 47.  
  2. Tim Dirth. “The Big Sleep (1946)”, “Filmsite”, (n.d.).   
  3. Andrew Sarris, “Living the private-eye genre”, films in focus, The Village Voice” (8 November 1973).   
  4. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “I'd Like More”, The Big Sleep (1946), Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  5. Roger Ebert, “The Big Sleep”, Great Movies, RogerEbert.com, (22 June 1997).   
  6. Brian Cady, Margarita Landazuri, and Frank Miller, “The Big Sleep”, Turner Classic Movies, (17 February 2005).     

“1917” - Sam Mendes (2019)

1917 (2019) is a British war drama set in the brutal trenches during the First World War.  Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, the film has achieved wide popularity and was nominated for 10 Oscars (U.S. Academy Awards), winning three of them, including the one for Best Cinematography.  Indeed the cinematography is the most striking thing about this work, because the entire film has the appearance of consisting of just two camera shots.  It’s my understanding that films comprising only a single take have been made before, but 1917 must surely be the most successful execution of that concept/scheme.  

The story of 1917 concerns two British lance corporals, Will Schofield (played by George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are charged with a critical and dangerous overnight mission.  With communication lines down, the task for them is to cross over “no man’s land” in front of their trenches in order to deliver a crucial message to another British battalion that would enable the recipient of that message to avert a German slaughter of British troops and save 1,600 lives.  The message, from General Erinmore (Colin Firth), is specifically directed to an officer of the other British battalion, Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), to call off an intended attack, because aerial reconnaissance has discovered that the German army has setup a trap and will annihilate the attacking forces.  

Blake is eager to carry out the dangerous assignment, because he wants to be a hero and because his brother is a member of the endangered battalion.  Schofield, however, is not enthusiastic at all.  He is a survivor of the devastating Battle of the Somme (300,000 deaths and over one million casualties) the year before, and he is familiar with the futility of war, but he agrees to go with Blake out of loyalty to his friend.  

The film begins on the evening of April 6th, 1917, and the film’s first shot, which lasts about an hour, starts by showing the lance corporals Blake and Schofield tranquilly snoozing under a tree in what appears to be a peaceful, pastoral setting.  We are soon to see that their environment is anything but peaceful.  They are awakened and informed about their dangerous assignment, and as the camera continues to track them, they are shown walking overt to and in the front-line war trenches looking for the place to cross over into no man’s land, which due, to a recent German retreat, is believed to be temporarily safe to move through.  

As the shot progresses, one becomes increasingly aware that this is one continuous take, but the camera movement is so carefully orchestrated and psychologically motivated that the continuity of the shot does not intrude on the viewer’s involvement in what happens (at least not for me).  (Actually, there are moments in the film where near-invisible camera cuts have likely been made, but the first hour of the film certainly looks like a single take.)  Some reviewers have found this single-take cinematography (by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins) to be gimmicky and artificial, and they have therefore panned the film (e.g. [1,2]).  But I, along with most reviewers (e.g.. [3,4]), found the visual flow of the film to be natural and compelling.  The camera moves, because it takes the watcher to a view that he or she is motivated to see.   
 
But this cinematography is more than just “natural”.  It establishes and maintains a moving aura of labyrinthine entanglement that visually evokes a dominating mood for the film.  The camera work makes one viscerally feel that Blake and Schofield find themselves in a relentless and continually evolving hell, which keeps presenting them with threatening surprises from which they must escape in order to carry out their crucial life-preserving mission.  So I would say this adroit cinematography constitutes the very soul of the film.

Further into this “first” shot we see Blake and Schofield in various bizarre and life-threatening situations out in no man’s land.  While the two of them are temporarily taking shelter in an abandoned farmhouse, they watch an aerial dogfight between a German plane and some Allied aircraft.  The German plane is shot down, and in flames it crashes into the farmhouse.  Blake and Schofield just barely get out of the way of the plane crash, and then they quickly manage to rescue the burned German pilot from his crashed plane.  But while Schofield is not looking, the pilot fatally stabs Blake.  Although Schofield shoots and kills the pilot, he is unable to save the life of his best friend, Blake.  This is a shock to the viewer, because less than half-way through the film, one of the two protagonists is now gone.  So Schofield now has to carry on alone.

After Schofield has more tense encounters, the film’s first shot finally comes to an end when he engages a German sniper in a gunfight that results in the death of the sniper and causes Schofield to lose consciousness.  
The “second” shot of the film begins later in the night, near dawn, when Schofield regains consciousness, and it continues with the same action-packed tenor as the first shot.  Schofield continues to have deadly encounters with the German combatants that he encounters.  At one point while fleeing his  pursuers, he jumps into a river and winds up getting swept over a high waterfall.  Eventually he manages to find and make his way to the British battalion under the command of Colonel Mackenzie that he has been seeking.  But precious time is running out, and Schofield still has to find Colonel Mackenzie’s trench and get him to call of his imminent attack.

Throughout this sinuous tale of Schofield’s struggles, we get a real, on-the-ground, feeling for what WWI trench warfare must have been like.  Although the story of 1917 is classed as fiction, it is based on tales that Sam Mendes heard when he was young from his grandfather about the latter’s experiences in WWI.  So Mendes apparently based this work on testimony that was as psychologically personal and authentic as he could find.  And the key feeling that prevails the work is one of entrapment.  It is  like an ongoing nightmare from which there seems to be no escape.  

There have been various esteemed cinematic efforts over the years, such as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), that seek to convey a basic truth about war – namely that “war is hell”.  And these anti-war films almost invariably evoke a sense of alienation, usually by directly showing characters who are alienated.  We see clearly direct evidence that those characters are alienated.  But 1917, thanks to  its brilliant camera work, goes further and provides an even greater sense of immediacy.  We, the viewers, have the same visual experiences that the portrayed characters have and feel our own personal sense of alienation.  We never really know much about Schofield as a person in this tale.  He is just an everyman who serves as a screen surrogate for the viewer so that he or she can have his or her own horrific experiences of life and combat in the trenches.

For these reasons I recommend that you see 1917 so that you can, like Schofield, also experience the existentially challenging feelings conjured up by its amazing camera work.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Peter Sobczynski, “1917", RogerEbert.com, (25 December 2019).   
  2. Manohla Dargis,“‘1917’ Review: Paths of Technical Glory”, The New York Times, (24 December 2019).   
  3. Philip Concannon, “1917 orchestrates World War I as a one-shot action ride”, Sight and Sound, (13 January 2021).   
  4. Richard Whittaker, “1917", The Austin Chronicle, (10 January 2020).    

Sam Mendes

Films of Sam Mendes:
  • 1917 -  Sam Mendes (2019)