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Christians, Cannibals and Spite: Notes on Films

by Bob Young

I try to take time off and avoid treating everything as grist for psychoanalytic rumination, but some leisure activities are so apt that it would be churlish not to think about them analytically. At the top of my list is 'Babette's Feast' a film set in an utterly bleak Danish village, among the members of an ageing Christian sect which thrived under the leadership of a charismatic patriarch. He had two lovely daughters, and each had a dashing suitor - one an army officer, the other an opera singer. The stern father saw off both of them, and the daughters remained spinsters, devoted to the service of their pastor and his flock. We see them age, the father dies, the sect goes into decline.

Aside from this, all that ruffles the surface of their lives is the arrival of a refugee from the Paris Commune, a destitute woman, sent by the opera singer, asking for a post as housekeeper and accepting an unpaid position when it emerged that the sisters were too poor to pay her. She is frugal, uncomplaining and life goes on until one day she wins the lottery. It appears that she will leave, but she asks to be allowed to serve a meal to the remnant of the congregation. By now they have become utterly crabby, backbiting, desiccated, a caricature of the stern superego of fundamentalist moralism. No joy at all; the Good News of the Gospel forgotten; hymns sung drearily between bickers.

The rest of the film is visually delectable. We see the ingredients of the feast arrive; the preparations are shown in exquisite detail. The parishioners become increasingly alarmed that this is the Devil's work, and vow on no account to enjoy the meal, which they are too polite to cancel. Among the guests is the army officer, now a general, who keeps up a running commentary on the courses and dishes, which are filmed in an utterly mouth-watering way. It emerges from his increasingly incredulous appreciative comments that there is only one chef in the world who could have prepared this meal and that she ran the most admired restaurant in Paris, before having to flee for her life from the mob.

As the meal progresses, the grumpy old parishioners are reached, in spite of themselves, by the sheer goodness, beauty and delicacy of the meal, along with the wines. They are moved (literally) viscerally, in spite of what they think and believe and try to prevent from affecting them. The feast reaches them at a level where their weary defences are not on guard. Their grumpiness gives way, little by little, to appreciation, old scores are settled or forgiven, good memories recovered, punitive impulses turn into jokes, and they end up dancing in the moonlight. There is a touching atmosphere of reparation and transformation of disappointments into acceptable forms of nostalgia.

Babette, the servant, reveals in a pleasant way that she has spent the entire windfall on the feast and will rest content with her lot, having demonstrated for herself the power of her art to give pleasure and to reach the parts punitive superegos cannot sclerose. I went to the film with a childhood sweetheart with whom I had been out of contact for many years, and we could not have been more affected by its gentleness and sense of the reparative power of shared, non-verbal delights and the healing function of conviviality.

'Jean de Florette' and 'Manon de Source' have a related theme the fruits of envy and spite. Another patriarch, played by an elderly Yves Montand, is obsessed with money, property and progeny. His own love affair of a lifetime went wrong decades earlier, and his hopes get pinned on a young cousin, a mean simpleton, returned from the army, eager to make his fortune by growing flowers. Together they plot to get a piece of land which has been inherited by a sweet, loving hunchback (Gerard Depardieu) who moves in with his wife and child. The meanness of small village values and of a gnawing avarice is pursued throughout the two films. In the first, the greedy men dam up the spring ('source') and, while appearing to help the idealistic young husband, grind him down and down until he dies in a desperate effort to drill for water. His daughter sees the villains undamming the spring at the end of the film.

We find her, now a young lady, at the beginning of the second one, wreaking a just revenge on the old man and his henchman-cousin, who falls hopelessly in love with her. She finds the source of the spring and dams it, holding the village to ransom until justice is done. The intricacies of the plot and relationships provide the fascination of the film, and the outcome shows the bitter fruits of envy, spite and avarice: the greedy ones turn out to have lost or destroyed all that they love that is human while pursuing ersatz substitutes. The story is exquisitely told, and the hearts of men and women are painfully laid bare.

Having greatly appreciated the films in the cinema, I was delighted to be asked to see them again with Joe Berke, who regards them as the perfect exemplification of the points he was making in his book, The Tyranny of Malice. He invited some friends along to his home, but none of us reckoned on the lack of constraint against talking in a domestic setting, as compared with a cinema. We were all so distressed that the pained comments (and Joe's malicious chortles) threatened to undermine the cultural experience - so powerful and distressing were the lessons of the films.

The night I went to 'The Silence of Lambs' it was announced that it had broken all box office records at The Odeon, Leicester Square. At the cinema where I saw it, the manager appeared and said that this was his largest audience ever. The subject of the film is a mad psychiatrist who eats people. Elaborate precautions are taken to protect people from his teeth - a glass partition in his cell, a steel body-jacket with a wire face mask when he leaves it, a mask covering his whole face when he travels. We are never allowed to forget how menacing he is. (Anthony Hopkins got a well-deserved Academy Award for his subdued performance.) Violent action on his part is restricted to gnawing one guard's face, through at the end he does tell us that he's 'having an old friend for dinner...' We see him wandering off behind the psychiatrist who had tormented him in prison. You'd think this choice of theme would relegate the film to the venues where B pictures are shown (and indeed, the ‘King of B’, Roger Corman, has a bit part). It puzzled me that the film is so popular.

The heroine is Jodie Foster, whose career has included a number of parts as a delinquent or abused child. She was delinquent girl in 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore', a teenage prostitute in 'Taxi Driver', gang raped in 'The Accused'. Off screen, while a student at Yale, she was the object of the amorous obsessions of the man who shot President Reagan. In 'The Silence of Lambs' she is an FBI trainee and plays the part as an innocent, devoid of base motives, sent on an assignment, playing it straight. Her father had been a law enforcement officer and was killed in the line of duty. She was sent to a ranch where she heard lambs being slaughtered and vowed to try to save one...

I saw an interview with the set designer. An earlier film about the same cannibalistic serial killer was set in an utterly white, clinical space. 'Lambs' portrays his prison as a dungeon/back passage/cloaca, with depraved inmates (one of whom flings semen on Jodie Foster). The main character is called Hannibal Lector, dubbed 'Hannibal the Cannibal' by the press. He is being asked to help out in finding another serial killer, 'Buffalo Bill' ('humps them before he skins them...'). His price for co-operating is that Foster should let him into her mind, and this process constitutes the utterly absorbing centrepiece of the film.

To be sure, there is a nasty action sequence when she catches up with Buffalo Bill. It's gripping: by using infrared goggles, the killer can see her and stalks her while she believes she is cautiously pursuing him. But it's nothing compared to Lector's loving and tender explorations of her inner world - her childlike need for the lambs to stop crying out. By the time we get to the lair of Buffalo Bill, Lector is essentially out of the film, and it reverts to a standard scarem thriller. There is, however, one feature of the killer's home which is of analytic interest. His polymorphously perverse sexuality is mirrored by the sheer messiness and sexually confused clutter of the house. The victim is held in a cellar, in a large hole in the ground which is unmistakably a rectum, in which she is kept filthy. She is continually denigrated and starved, in preparation for being skinned.

My explanation of the compelling experience of the film and my hunch about its appeal came to me when I was preparing a seminar on projective identification and came across the following passage in Klein's 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms': 'The destructive impulse projected outward is first experience as oral aggression. I believe that oral-sadistic impulses towards the mother's breast are active from the beginning of life, though with the onset of teething the cannibalistic impulses increase in strength - a factor stressed by Abraham. In states of frustration and anxiety the oral-sadistic and cannibalistic desires are reinforced...'

I quote this passage to support the suggestion that it helps to explain why a film about cannibalism is a tract for the times and why it is reassuring for this much-abused actress to elicit benign caring from a depraved psychiatrist. It's a comfort to see Red Riding Hood spared by the fanged wolf, while acknowledging how bad things are in these rapacious times, in a world where the most primitive impulses are rampant and acted out in domestic, social and geopolitical settings. We identify with her and are led to believe that while everyone else may be at risk, we will be spared, because we have suffered enough and are essentially innocent, just doing our job. Though Freud said that 'Man is a wolf to other men', we can, in cinematic fantasy, believe that the veneer of civilization will support our weight, though perhaps not the others'.

This review appeared in the Lincoln Newsletter


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The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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