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Babette’s Feast: It’s Food, So What’s the Big Deal?

I’m deeply grateful that Jason Gray mentioned this movie in the reply of a recent post. It won an Academy Award in 1987 for Best Foreign Language film. I’ve intended to see it for a long time and Jason’s recommendation was the final inspiration that brought me to move it up in my Netflix queue.

It’s a movie of understated beauty. The Danish landscape is filmed with muted browns, grays, and yellows. Though the topography is overgrown and rough, its muted colors seem an appropriate backdrop for the grave, ascetic characters that inhabit the small Danish fishing village in which the the film is set.

Young and pretty sisters, Martina and Philippa are courted by two handsome and apparently honorable men. When it appears each respective relationship may advance, their father–a fervent Protestant clergyman–subtly manipulates circumstances to keep his pious daughters home. And there they stay, even when their father passes on. It’s as if he controls their choices, even from the grave.

The sisters are part of the kind of religious community, a sect really, which on the surface, is hard to fault. There are pious meetings, weighty hymns, and significant devotion to caring for the sick and poor. Collectively, this group seems to live a life of self-discipline, self-denial, but little obvious joy. We see few children in the community, no great surprise. Rigorous religious observances are never missed, but celebrated with little pleasure.

Years go by. Then, one night in a raging storm, Babette (Stephane Audran) knocks on the front door of the cottage shared by the sisters. She carries a letter of introduction from one of the sister’s long lost loves, the famous opera singer Achille Papin, now retired, who sent Babette from France. Having lost both her husband and son in the Paris Commune, Babette, he explains, needs political sanctuary. At first, the sisters kindly refuse to bring Babette into their modest home. But when Babette offers her housekeeping services for free, their last objection disintegrates.

The arrangement works. The three women mesh in a relationship which benefits all. The sister’s beliefs prevent showy forms of affection, but it’s obvious that the years generate reciprocal respect and love among the women. Fast forward fourteen years.

The sisters wish to acknowledge the 100th birthday of their highly esteemed father with a simple, unpretentious dinner. Anything more would be too ostentatious. Meanwhile, Babette wins a large sum of money in an early version of the lottery (the lottery’s modern form can be traced to 15th-century Europe). Babette offers to prepare and finance the meal for the sisters, with one caveat; that the feast be a French extravaganza. Reluctantly, because Babette insists, the sisters finally agree.

Later, fueled by the ernest admonitions of their congregation and second thoughts of their own, the sisters implore their group to ignore the lavish meal. To enjoy such a functional endeavor such as a meal would be inappropriate. They may eat, but nothing must be said of the meal. It must not be acknoweleged; certainly not praised.

On the day of the celebration, they receive word that a member of their group, Mrs. Lowenhielm will bring her nephew, none other than Lorens Lowenhielm. He’s the long lost boyfriend of one of the sisters, from the early years, and now an esteemed decorated general. He, of course, knows nothing of the group’s covert plan to behave matter of factly about the dinner. His presence at the meal is the mechanism by which I was most moved, both by laughter and poignancy.

How can the preparation and serving of a meal be the effective centerpiece of a film? Just watch. As Babette prepares the feast, with expert timing, skill, and artistic flair, somewhere along the line I realized that the preparation and serving of the meal was transcendent. As the best art defies category and rigid definition, so Babette’s feast becomes more than food on the table. Her seven course masterpiece of fine food and drink is expertly crafted. Contrasted with the staid fish of the day the townspeople endure, the culinary explosion of Babette’s feast is palpable, even for an observer. Watching members of the sober congregation deflect Mr. Lowenhielm’s effusive praise of the meal with their own references to the weather or anything but the food, brings plenty of laughs. There’s a pink elephant in the room, which nobody acknowledges. That is, until the general speaks up.

After he can bear it no more, the general taps his glass and rises to his feet:

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.

The general’s eloquent words reflected thoughts that were gently percolating in my mind as I enjoyed this film. I can’t say that it was the filmmakers intention, but as I observed the wonderful feast I saw it as a picture of divine, unmitigated mercy (after watching the film, I read at least six reviews, none of which mentioned this). At this representation of divine character, I felt the release of tears. Here we have an unseen culinary maestro, hidden in the kitchen. Her masterful design is happily and graciously bestowed upon her guests. Their nonchalent attitude doesn’t change her. She’s graciously doing what she does because of who she is and the love she has for the sisters.

In this wonderful world, we are given devine freedom to partake. We are given much to choose. Often, decisions are approached with tripidation, not gusto. Like the members of this largely kind-hearted congregation, appearances and the mechanics of behavior take precedence over expressions of the spirit. The heart is shackled and subdued by lies. Meanwhile, it wants to soar. Leave fear behind. Come. Eat. Taste. Savor. Enjoy!

As the movie draws to a close, it is revealed that Babette spent all of her lottery winnings on importing and paying for the expensive ingredients. When the sisters learn this, one gently admonishes Babette, suggesting that she will now be poor for the rest of her life. Babette’s reply encapsulates one of the film’s themes: “An artist is never poor.”

Indeed. And one doesn’t need specific artistic skills to be considered an artist. An artist is one that looks at life with passion, distinction, and nuance. He has a desire to discover beauty in the nooks and crannies our world. No. He is driven to discover beauty in the nooks and crannies of our world. Like an artist that uses his God given imagination to create beauty, so the passive artist uses his creativity to notice beauty in the world. Those that choose such a perspective possess great riches.


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