Babette’s Feast (1987)
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker
Finding wholly entertaining films that don’t cater to our basest instincts has become difficult in recent years. So Babette’s Feast is a breath of fresh air. This award-winning, G-rated film not only holds enough drama to satisfy sophisticated moviegoers, but it delves into the purposes and rewards of religious devotion. Although it is in Danish with English subtitles, it is exquisitely told and universally felt.
As daughters of a minister who organized a puritanical sect in a remote Danish village, Phillippa and Martina have led lives of strict religious devotion. Even in their waning years they still care for the poor and minister to the needs of his congregation. A mutual friend sends Babette, a celebrated chef, to them to escape a civil war in France. Her husband and son have already been killed and the country is no longer safe for her. Although they cannot afford to hire her, she willingly becomes their servant-for she has nowhere else to go. When the sisters plan a celebration and renewal of faith on the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth, Babette volunteers to treat the small congregation to an authentic French meal. The two sisters grant her wish, but soon fear they may have opened Pandora’s box.
Gabriel Axel, the film’s director, effectively conveys the austere life of the village through his filmmaking. He keeps the camera work simple and functional, with many static shots and minimal camera movement. He edits judiciously, giving close-ups only when needed. Even when he uses music, he chooses the thin sounds of a piano tune. This established austerity contrasts effectively with the later abundance of Babette’s extravagant meal.
These filmmaking techniques also serve to place the audience’s focus on the rich characters. Phillippa and Martina (named for Martin Luther and his friend Phillip) have not remained as servants and leaders of the community without sacrifices. Beautiful Martina was once courted by a young army officer, but she chose the work of the Lord over earthly love. Phillippa was offered fame by a well-known opera singer who discovered her gift for singing. She, too, willingly chose her father’s life of piety.
The romantic army officer, Lorens, and the boisterous opera singer, Achille Papin, prove to be little threat to the calm provincial life. And Babette, another outsider, seeks not to change these people, but to serve them, spending many years there.
When the sisters discover the extent of Babette’s plans for the dinner, they worry that they have exposed themselves and the sect to temptation. As a group, they promise to consume the food humbly without talking about it. This leads to one of the funniest dinner scenes put on film as Lorens, now a General, conveys his astonishment at the quality of the food while everyone else discusses the weather and other trivial matters.
If taken too literally, Babette’s Feast can be seen as a commentary against austerity in favor of abundance. But the film does not advocate that fully satisfying our physical senses is the way to a full life. Instead, it contrasts spiritual austerity with spiritual abundance.
All the character’s stories come to a head at Babette’s feast. The meal’s abundance illustrates the joys and rewards of service. When Babette uses her talent as she does, it benefits everyone, but not in the gastronomical way you’d expect. The feast turns the participants to thoughts of reconciliation with each other and with God. As the General learns: “mercy is infinite” and sometimes “righteousness and bliss” really do meet. He finally comes to terms with his youthful decision to leave Martina and devote himself to the military. The other members of the party re-learn how to love each other and put differences aside.
The sisters may have sacrificed great opportunities in their youth, but they don’t regret their life of service. Lorens, on the other hand, regrets the decisions he made for the wrong reasons. The sisters always acted on their beliefs while he acted in a search for vanity. In the end, he respects them and their father for standing firm. The sisters may not have earned fame like Achille either, but he finds that fame doesn’t lasting and lives in despair. The sisters are well-loved, respected, and have achieved a great work-serving the needy and helping their community find peace with each other and God.
Babette also makes an important sacrifice in her search for happiness and purpose. She is not only an artist, but an unselfish one.
This seemingly simple story plumbs the depths of drama and spirituality. Don’t miss it.
[Note: Try to find the subtitled and not the English dubbed version. The DVD release features the best quality video transfer and sound available.]
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.