Babette’s Feast (1987)

Gabriel Axel

Reconciliation, Sacrament, Joy

Babette’s Feast (1987).  Written by Karen Blixen (short story) and Gabriel Axel (screenplay).  Directed by Gabriel Axel.  Starring Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Bergitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, and Jean-Philippe Lafont.  Music: Per Nørgaard.  Cinematography: Henning Kristiansen.  Rated G; 102 mins. Rotten Tomatoes 100%.

Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987) is a remarkable film of many pleasures, and all the more so because it is a film about dining pleasure, both for the chef and for the diners.  These benefits are indeed lush and profound, and the film wonderfully depicts the pleasures of cooking and the grand surprise of exceptional food, a cuisine that not only sustains the body but delights, yes, the soul, especially when the meal transfigures into an actual authentic love feast, which is what so clearly happens in this remarkable film.

One of the central, and unparalleled, accomplishments of Babette’s Feast is the dramatic communal wonder and celebration of “being fed” with the splendorous goodness of creation by one who knows and loves it all intensely.  At the center is Babette, the humble “cook” who has won the lottery and has staged this feast in large part as a gesture of love and appreciation for the sisters who gave her shelter amid the storm (think Matthew 25, or King Lear amid the pitiless storm). And on this meal she spends the whole of her lottery haul of 10,000 francs.  All of it.

Babette’s gesture is deeply informed, so the film strongly implies, by her lasting devotion to Catholicism despite her long exile in the land of Luther.  This reality is made wordlessly obvious in the scene in which she asks the sisters’ permission to provide a “meal” in commemoration of their father’s birthday, the founder of a small and now dwindling pietistic sect.  As she readies to make her proposal for a “meal” to the sisters, her right hand unobtrusively reaches up to hold the crucifix that always hangs from her neck.  Indeed, it is the embrace of the tortured, death-bound Christ, and him of her.

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The gesture points to a domain of personal meaning to which words cannot travel.

And prepares the way for the remarkable feast, transmuting the “meal” into a feast, the act of sacramentalizing the ordinary dross of life, such as turtles, etc., into splendorous fare.  And this is done, to repeat the point, by a remarkably unlikely person–an anonymous, exiled female chef decades after she has escaped the political terrors of Paris that murdered her son and husband.  And that is should happen in such a remote, unlikely place among the children of the Reformation at the hands of a devout Catholic is no less a wonder, In fact, her role is priestly as she lovingly transforms “a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.”  It may not exactly amount to transubstantiation, but it perhaps approaches such.  That was her feat in the Café Anglais in Paris when she could, at the very least, by doing her art, make her patrons “happy,” at least for a little while.  And here, among these aged folk, she repeats the feat, though this time she instigates a good deal more than momentary pleasure or happiness.

After all, her aged and ascetic guests, the last remnants of a dwindling and dispirited flock, have fallen into petty quarreling, having mostly forgotten the minister’s counsel to love one another in the manner of Christ.  And they taste food that in its surprise and sumptuousness recalls the sorts of wonder they experienced when first falling under the founder’s (and God’s) sway.  It recalls, then, in the surprise and delight it elicits, miracle akin to that enacted when first ambushed by Light and holy love.  Back then, swallowed by forgiveness and magnanimity, they relished the surprise and pleasure of finding Light.  Now, running into light again, though of a very different manner but not of kind, they exult again in mutuality and love for one another.

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And perhaps all the more so because of their many decades and the clear approach of night of death.

The close of the film makes stunningly clear the full affect and effect of this meal they have shared.  The small flock assembles in the dark starlit night around the village well, and like “little children,” as their leader used to refer to them, they join hands and sing.

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And that is what these all, in this perilous world, have indeed found.  One of their kind has lavished love upon them all, just as the poor woman gave her all to anoint the feet of Jesus.  A meal in this case, transfigured into feast, wherein the guests have together again found home in mutuality of care and love.