Friday, February 20, 2009

“Babette’s Feast”

I’m writing today about a film I love—sometimes not the easiest task, to transform that experience into black & white; & the film isn’t one of the screwball comedies Eberle & I enjoy so much. It’s a much more recent film, tho it was released over 20 years ago. As the post title says, it’s Babette’s Feast.

We were all much younger in 1987 when Babette’s Feast was released. I recall seeing the film at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville, VA in the late 80s, & I recall being moved, not just by Isak Dinessen’s tale of redemption, but by the film’s amazing lyricism, its invitation into a sort of adult fairy tale.

For those who haven’t yet experienced Babette’s Feast, the story involves two sisters, great beauties in their youth, who’ve followed the teachings of their strict Lutheran father, a pastor who has created his own sect of followers along the coast of Jutland. Although the sisters are courted in their youth & have two admirers in particular, they remain unmarried & continue to do good works & maintain their father’s teachings among an aging group of followers. A French woman, fleeing from the revolutionary bloodshed in late 19th century Paris comes to them, recommended by one of their old suitors, & becomes their cook. When this woman—Babette of the title, played with wonderful bearing & deep feeling by Stéphane Audran—wins the French lottery, she persuades the sisters to let her cook a real French gourmet dinner in honor of their father. Tho the sisters agree to this, they grow increasingly distressed at the sumptuous ingredients Babette is using, & even fear that the dinner may become “a witches sabbath.” One of the sisters gathers the small congregation together to express her fears, & they all agree not to find any pleasure in the food & drink.

Of course what happens is far different than that, because the story is about redemption, reconciliation, overcoming regret at the deepest level. As I’ve grown older, this aspect of the film speaks to me more & more; as I wander here on the north side of age 50, I can sometimes wander into the “land of regret” (a phrase used by Kimy of the delightful blog Mouse Medicine in a comment here once, & a phrase I think about quite often). Although I generally see myself as a man who is happy in his life & who believes that he’s been fortunate to come to this point, there’s always that stretch of past time filled with decisions—as the Catholics say, “what I have done & what I have failed to do”—that can arise almost insensibly in the heart; because as much as our physical existence is linear, moving from point to point, our experience as thinking & feeling creatures is repetitive & circular—a fact underscored by Babette’s Feast, which resonates with echoed scenes. One of the most noteworthy of these is General Lorens Löwenhielm’s moving speech about mercy & truth. General Löwenhielm courted one of the sisters, Martine, when he as a dashing young cavalry officer. Now having come to a position of worldly power, but also evincing a deep world-weariness as he returns to the home of his love after many years, we see the feast transform him. His speech runs as follows:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

This is such a moving moment; it actually echoes a scene from earlier in the story when young Löwenhielm was courting Martine, & Martine’s father made a short speech containing some of the same phrases. But while the world of that earlier time seemed full of impossibilities (as Löwenhielm tells Martine at the time), now it seems that “all things are possible” (as the older Löwenhielm tells Martine after the feast). The concept that we have been granted both what we’ve chosen & what we’ve rejected is profound, & while this obviously can be seen as pointing towards an after-life, I believe it also points toward life in the here & now—this seems clear from Löwenhielm’s statement: “in this beautiful world of our
s, all things are possible.” The film has a profound spirituality which stands apart from any specific belief system—both Eberle & I (a Catholic & a non-Christian) find the film equally affirming.

Part of this affirmation is the act of creation itself. Interestingly, both cookin
g & singing are ephemeral arts, & this underscores the doubling between Babette & the other sister, Fillipa. Fillipa is a gifted singer, & as a young woman she was courted by a famous French baritone who’d traveled to Jutland for a retreat into solitude. This man, Achille Papin, was very drawn to Fillipa both because of her beauty & also because of her amazing voice, & he offers to give her singing lessons. These lessons continue until the two sing the seduction duet from Don Giovanni—following this, Fillipa decides she can’t continue, & Papin leaves, heartbroken.

But it’s Papin who sends Babette to the sisters, & Babette, like Fillipa, is a woman whose artistry has been suppressed by circumstance—even, one might say, by fate. Without giving too much away, the film’s final moments—an interchange between Babette & Fillipa—echoes a scene between Fillipa & Papin, & underlines the redemptive power of art.

There are many lovely moments in this film, which i
s quiet both in terms of its deceptively simple story & also literally—there isn’t a lot of dialogue, so when characters speak, their words gather that much more weight. Henning Kristiansen’s cinematography is beautiful, & the film moves at a crisp pace under Gabriel Axel’s direction. Babette’s Feast won the 1988 Oscar in the Foreign Film category, & also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for a non-English language film.

Those who are interested in the gourmet menu can find more information here & here.

If you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast, I’d strongly reco
mmend it; if you have, I can say this is a film that rewards repeated viewings. It's art that works its way into the heart.

& finally, many thanks to our dear friend Margot who gave us the DVD as a gift to replace our dearly departed VHS copy!


  1. This is a WONDERFUL little film. I like it so much that I actually own a copy. "The film has a profound spirituality which stands apart from any specific belief system"...yes, this is what makes this little gem so powerful. Excellent review, John.

  2. Excellent, indeed. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing Babette's Feast, but I'll remedy that as soon as I can.

  3. This film is dear to my heart! Not only is it a gorgeously filmed, tenderly spiritual and quietly moving film, it is a Danish one. My husband's background is Danish and we love the Scandinavian films particularly. "Pelle, the Conqueror" is another of our absolute must-sees.
    I haven't watched this in quite a while. I must drag out the dvd.
    We have a collection of over 100 foreign films. I would have to say it is our favourite genre.


  4. I was sure that I had seen this movie...but who knows? your description fails to bring up any recognition. I think I will try to hunt it down though and maybe see it again for the first time!

    regrets now that is another ball of wax!

  5. i love this film however haven't seen it since it first came out ---but it's one of those films that stays with you through time. and it is time to watch it again (actually past time).... my bookgroup is reading a year of books about food - we have toyed around about having a monthly movie night at someone's house on another day than book night - babette's feast is among the 'food movies' I made up for movie night...thanks for the inspiration, I think I'll try and organize a gathering with my bookwomen friends and have a showing of this gem.

  6. I love this film. Thank you for reminding me to watch it again.

  7. Willow: Yes, we're happy to have a copy, because it is a film that can be watched a number of times-- thanks.

    Sandra: Yes, you'll almost certainly enjoy it-- should be at any good dvd rental shop, & I'm sure it must be at NetFlix.

    Poetikat: Interesting about the Scandinavian connection; I haven't seen Pelle the Conqueror, tho I've heard good things about it. I too really love foreign films, despite the screwball cast to RFB film reviews.

    Collette: Even if you have seen it, it's worth seeing again. Thanks for stopping by!

    Kimy: Love the idea of the book/film combo club. This would be an excellent choice. Eberle & I are both itching to read the Dinesen book-- niether of us have.

    Miss Whistle: This is truly a film to lift one's spirits, & not in any trite sense. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Babette's Feast is now on my list.

    Regrets are the cancer of life. As I get older, I find myself making decisions on the basis of which alternative I am least likely to regret on my deathbed. It may sound macabre, but it pushes me to action and puts matters in perspective.

  9. Hi K.: You won't be disappointed in "Babette's Feast." & no, I don't think that's macabre or morbid-- I also believe that having one's mortality in mind while moving thru life is a healthy thing.

  10. This is indeed a wonderful film. I watched it with my sons when they were 15 and 17, and they were blown away. Just last week, my younger son, now 20, listed it as one of his top ten movies. I think my favorite moment is when they can't conceal their astonishment -- their rapture -- when they begin to eat their extraordinary meal.

  11. T: That is a great moment-- the whole feast scene is remarkable. To my mind, it speaks very well of your sons that they'd like this sort of movie at a young age.


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