A Critical Review
by Izzie Hardawan
After such disastrous meldings of styles as the Joe Strummer/Boy George
vehicle, Culture Clash, of the late ‘80s, one would think the
entertainment industry would steer clear of that sort of thing. But
then there’s Babette’s Fist, the new film from
Quentin Tarantino and Gabriel Axel. The plot would seem to back that
up: Babette (Juliette Binoche), a 19th Century French restauranteur,
has to flee her native country during the civil war. All her friends,
save one, and her family are killed. Babette ends up in a Japanese fishing
village where she is taken under the wing of a venerable Samurai (Pat
Morita) and over the next 14 years becomes proficient in a plethora
of martial arts. After Babette wins the lottery (her lone friend in
France has been buying her tickets), she returns to Paris to kick ass.
And that’s pretty much it.
Like every other Tarantino movie, this one is great. It is, like the
rest of them, an unalloyed work of pure genius, never mind the fact
that the last reel is a string of tenuously connected, ultra-violent
diegetically pointless episodes; nor that the plot itself is both implausible
and absurd. Discount completely that the main character is played by
an “A” list actor doing possibly the worst work of her career.
She is beautiful, and that’s all that counts. No, I was wrong.
It also counts that she was filmed causing others to bleed and die artistically.
Brutality is nothing compared to the breathless arc of pig’s
blood saturating Binoche’s blouse until her nipples show through.
Moral justifications are laid to rest by the plot’s revenge motive.
After all, when Babette returns to Paris after learning her supernatural
martial arts skills the movie really begins. This is when Gabriel
Axel’s contribution ends and Tarantino’s takes over. Axel’s
seemingly endless shots of the lovely little Japanese fishing village
really do nothing for me. Shots of Babette sparring with an 800 year
old Samurai master may involve graceful movements, but they shed no
blood. It is simply boring.
From the moment the audience learns that Babette’s entire family
has, indeed, been decimated, we crunch our popcorn and sip our sodas
in scintillating anticipation of her coming opportunity for ass-kicking.
The wait is an excruciating 35 minutes.
I cannot decide if teaming up with Axel and allowing this to go on
so long was a purposeful way of increasing the satisfaction of the final
death scenes or not. If so, it is absolutely brilliant. If it was an
error on his part, it would be the first one in a Tarantino movie. Ever.
Yes, another 35 minutes of picturesque Japanese hills and gently bickering
villagers. Another 35 minutes of fishing nets wafting elegantly in the
wind and post-card quality shots of jellied fish eyes. It’s a
When we finally get there, Tarantino films 19th Century Paris as a
bleak wasteland - all drab greys and dismal, dingy off-whites. Naturalism
be damned. After all, the “City of Lights” image would be
ill-suited to such dark fare. The plain backgrounds help to bring the
spurting fonts of blood and the gorgeous decapitations into sharp relief.
Unencumbered by the usual prettification of Parisian street life, the
visual schmaltz of Versailles or the creaminess of Montmartre or the
Left Bank, Tarantino dwells in the back alleys behind the bistros
where the blood and the bile and the chunks of newly necrotized flesh
are flushed into the storied Parisian sewers through open drains. It
is pure cinematic nirvana.
Consider, for instance, Tarantino’s homage to Psycho
where Babette slays the woman who ordered the murder of her second-cousin
and sous-chef by pulling back the curtain of his bath and having at
him with a Wüsthof Classic™ 32 cm cook’s knife. Not
only is this the most brilliant piece of product placement in postmodern
film, it is better than the original because Hitchcock was limited to
black and white and the Hays code. Tarantino can show the full effects
of the evisceration at close quarters, Babette’s victim losing
his guts like a porker losing his chitterlings on the slaughterhouse
floor. It leaves nothing to the bland and trying realms of the imagination.
One may in fact say that there are no “new” shots in Babette’s
Fist. But that is to confuse “homage” with “rip-off.”
And in the true postmodern spirit, what Tarantino does with the shots
like the one on the Boulevard Voltaire that seems so reminiscent of
High Noon is to, in essence, visually sample the films
of the past. Tarantino isn’t imitating; he’s doing hip-hop.
It isn’t recycling, nor rehashing; it’s updating the past
for a contemporary audience by giving those older movies the cinematic
equivalent of a backbeat. It just shows how much Tarantino - who used
to work at a video shop, you know - loves movies. Imitation is the sincerest
form of flattery, right?
Moreover, IMDb reports that Binoche, who is onscreen almost every second,
lost twenty pounds for this role and trained with a martial arts expert
for up to eight hours a day. The mise-en-scene with her lithe,
taut new body and multiple disarticulated limbs displays perfectly Tarantino’s
directorial brilliance. It gave me wood, frankly. Speaking of wood,
this reminds me of the scene where Babette slays a rival chef with a
shish-kebab stick, skewering the eye like a scallop, the optic nerve
laced around it like thinly-sliced bacon. It was both lovely and amazing.
Because Tarantino directed it, or at least most of it, or at least
the good parts, you know Babette’s Fist has
got to be quality. And since the fight scenes are so beautifully filmed,
this makes Babette’s Fist one of Tarantino’s best.
This makes it one of the best films out - maybe even the best
film. Ever. I cannot wait for the sequel when the daughter of the cook
Babette kills to avenge the death of her own mother the pastry chef
grows up and kills her. I hear they’re getting Natalie Portman
in see-through culottes for that one.