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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Babette’s Fist: 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 freakin’ eternity.

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.