Babette’s Feast (1988)
(original Danish title Babette's gæstebud (1987))
Director: Gabriel Axel
This film defies categorisation. Yes, it is a foreign film, one of the most successful of the 1980s: the dialogue is all in Danish, with subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. I remembered enjoying it the first time, so went to see it again recently, but I had totally forgotten about the subtitles. In the end, the story is so strong that the subtitles don’t matter. The film is so visual that it seems almost natural to absorb the dialogue through text, rather than aurally.
Like many Scandinavian films, it has a brooding quality, and the remote Jutland scenery, lovingly filmed by Henning Kristiansen suits the brooding mood very well.
As the movie ends, you are left with a good feeling inside, even though there is much to be sad about in the film. It deals ultimately with vocations and calling, and how people respond to their destiny. Does one sacrifice ‘life’ to follow one’s calling, or does one try to repress the destiny in favour of a more desirable existence?
At least, that’s how I look at it.
The storyline is based on a short story by Karen Blixen, writing under the name of Isak Dinesen. And you should know that there is no sex, no violence, no car chases and no, err, action in the Hollywood sense. Nevertheless, it is gripping in its own way.
Although the description below contains spoilers, this is not a thriller, so the direction of the story is less important than how it is told.
Plot (Many spoilers in here)
The movie follows the lives of two sisters, Martina and Phillipa, daughters of a charismatic, but selfish Lutheran minister, as they grow from early womanhood to old age in a remote village on the Jutland coast. It is set in the middle years of the 19th century, around the time of the French Revolution.
We see the minister (Pouel Kern), and his two attractive daughters, preparing plain but nutritious food to give to the poor, tending the sick and worshipping God in their tiny village. In their spare time, the two young women knit and remain silent and pious.
One day, the young Swedish cavalry officer Lorens Loewenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson), happens to see Martina, (played by Vibeke Hastrup) while he is out riding during a visit to his aunt. Attracted by Martina's outer beauty, he begins to visit the Minister’s simple house under the pretext of worshipping with the Lutheran congregation. He quickly falls in love with Martina's inner beauty too, but when the time comes, she chooses piety over her emotions.
His memory stays with her for the rest of her life. Likewise with Loewenhielm. He remembers her and yearns for her, but since he cannot have her, he chooses a life which brings him into the most favoured social circles, dining and dancing with French royalty as a successful career officer.
Phillipa (Hanne Stensgaard), the other daughter has a beautiful singing voice, and when a fading Parisian opera star (Achille Papin, played by Jean-Philippe Lafont) comes to the village to rest his voice, her talent is recognised. The father allows the Frenchman to train Phillipa as a singer. Papin falls in love with Phillipa, and promises her the world as a famous singer at the Paris Opera. Eventually the passionate nature of Papin’s songs and Papin himself, convince the woman that his life is not for her. Like her sister, she lives with the memory of this time, and the opportunities it brought, and which she declined, for the rest of her life.
Some years later, after the father has died, a woman—Babette (Stéphane Audran)—knocks on the door of the two sisters’ house. Papin has sent her to escape from revolutionary Paris. They take her in and she becomes their maid, cooking and cleaning for them for no money. They show her in detail how to make their peasant food, and Babette watches carefully. It turns out that she cooks well, and is very competent at buying good fish from the local fishermen and bread from the baker. We see her negotiating with the local tradesmen and bringing joy to their hearts, while getting better prices than any of the locals, making the weekly budget stretch much further.
Meanwhile, the charisma of the minister is wearing off, and the old congregation starts to turn in on itself, their familiarity breeding contempt for each other. Old rivalries surface. Tales of cheating from 20 years ago are resurrected, and the congregation is at risk of falling apart.
The three women live together for many more years until eventually a telegram arrives for Babette. She has won the Paris lottery, and with it, a vast sum of money.
The 100th anniversary of the minister’s birth is approaching, and Babette offers to cook the celebratory meal. She insists, arguing to the sisters that she has never once asked them for anything, and on this one occasion, she is asking for a favour from them. Eventually they agree.
Babette goes away for a few days, and on her return, many exotic foods start arriving in the small rural village.
Meanwhile, the officer has come to visit his aunt, a regular worshipper at the small church. On the day of the celebration, the officer also comes to dinner.
The congregation, all of whom have lived their lives on the breadline, in the strict Lutheran tradition of simple, plain food, with no alcohol or fancy cooking, sense that this meal will be different. They regard fine cooking as the work of the devil, and agree among themselves that they will not discuss the food or the flavours during the meal. They agree to eat Babette’s food, but not to succumb to the pleasures of taste, and they brace themselves for the onslaught of temptation that is to come.
The meal starts. It is a triumph, worthy of the finest Parisian restaurant, for it turns out that Babette was the head chef at the top pre-revolutionary restaurant in Paris. She prepares her signature dishes, made with the finest ingredients, cooked to perfection and served with the finest wines the Parisian cellars have to offer. The Officer, well-used to such luxury recognises the dishes and the wines, and is astonished to find such luxury in this setting. It sets him thinking about his life and his destiny.
No-one else speaks, at least at first. They drink the best vintage champagne believing it to be some kind of lemonade. They sup turtle soup not knowing how rare it is. Gradually, the warmth of the food and the flavour of the wines melts the atmosphere, and old wounds are healed. The old sores which have started to rancour are excised as people talk about them, and joke and realise they are nothing.
The end of the evening comes, and all are happy, dancing around the well in the centre of the village, and all their problems have been erased.
The lottery money has all gone on the food and wine, so Babette remains with the two sisters, and the film ends, with Babette saying that she will never be poor with her gift.
I'm not sure there's any more to say about it here. As you watch, you feel it is not really going anywhere, and yet at the end, there is this great feeling of uplift. We have watched the food progress from basic stodge to fine cuisine, and the emotional tone has followed a similar path, from the all-but dead (emotionally-speaking) minister, to the richness of the passions on display at the end.
I guess you could call it anti-religious, but I don't think that would be right. It seems to me to be calling for more balance between passion and piety. Perhaps there are battles being fought between Catholicism and Calvinism in the bleak landscape, but even that seems a bit superficial.
In the end, I know I felt good at the end of it, but I still cannot really put my finger on why.
So, if you see it on the shelves at the Video store, hire it, watch it, and tell me why *you* like it!