Babette’s Feast (1987)

Gabriel Axel

Creation, Delight, Wonder

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%.

It is a nameless place where nothing much happens, in part because it is the middle of the 19th century and also because it seems to lie at the fringe of nowhere, namely somewhere on the seacoast of Danish Jutland.  In a tiny fishing village, consisting almost entirely of a few aging pensioners, live two spinster sisters, Martina (Bergitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer), named after Luther and Melanchthon by their late father, a leader of a small and now dwindling ascetic pietistic sect of some sort.

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On the proverbial dark and stormy night, a knock on the door reveals a stranger, an attractive middle-aged French woman who begs refuge, presenting a letter of reference from one Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont), a once-famous opera singer who decades earlier sought the quiet of a remote countryside and fell in love with one of the sisters, who herself sings like a heavenly dove.  The stranger begs to stay, and the sisters overcome their reluctance to take in anyone, given their meager resources.  Babette (Stephane Audran), though, as she informs them, can cook, and that will help the sisters’ charity work of supplying meals for the poor in the village.

Such is the premise for one of the most remarkable stories in cinema history, based on a 1953 Ladies Home Journal short story by Isak Dinesen, the pen name of Danish writer Karen Blixen (1885-1962), also the author of Out of Africa, a memoir of Blixen’s experience of coffee farming in Africa (a very successful 1985 film version starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford). A quiet and spare film, entirely lacking in any sort of cinematic “flash,” Babette’s Feast was an international sensation, and additionally, it precipitated a vast western cultural interest in gastronomy, specifically dining or, as we know it now, the foodie movement.  And it generated an enormous quantity of theological discussion, having, as it does, what is perhaps history’s most remarkable communion feasts, one which is full of wonders, both culinary and religious.

One of Babette’s remarkable accomplishments, as both film and character, is Babette’s  feast itself and what it tells of the goodness of the gift of being alive—in this case, pure delight in eating, which for the most part differs from the North American habits of just plain stuffing oneself from boredom or anxiety or fun or whatever (mea culpa).  Happily, very happily, the story captures fully the wonder, splendor, and splendid benison of the exquisite goodness of the earth, and for this the participants in the meal give abundant thanks.  The humble aging dinner guests, mostly the remnants of the sisters’ father’s congregation, none of whom, save for one, have probably ever gone near anything even like a restaurant, are to say the least astounded by what they taste in food and drink.

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The surprise of astonishment and delight prepare the way for a new posture of reflexive thanksgiving that subsequently departs profoundly from their prevailing moods of resignation and contentiousness.  After all, unbeknownst to the them, they have consumed the artistry of the one of the most celebrated chefs of Paris, Babette Hersant, who twenty years before, following the murder of her child and husband by French revolutionaries, sought refuge in a remote Danish fishing village.

There is the shock of the splendor of the food and in that recognition of the extreme giftedness of being alive and partaking so, yanking one back to the rudiments of being alive.  One after another the camera catches the silent surprise of the guests, a look the faithful should make habitual (they’ve been counseled for religious reasons to not enjoy the food).

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And of this remarkable feast, its creator herself does not partake, content to know its goodness and the wondrous pleasure it ignites.  Rather, chef Babette slaves in the kitchen, sampling her art only to make sure every element of the meal has met her standards.  And when over, her miracle complete, Babette contents herself with a solitary glass of wine, not interested in the least of receiving plaudits from her now enchanted (and slightly tipsy) dinner guests.

The only one of the dinner guests who fully catches the full wonder of what they consume is a well-travelled Danish general who was a dissolute wastrel when as a young soldier he fell deeply in love with one of the sisters (his ancient aunt has been invited to the feast, and he comes along).  What he now consumes recalls an astonishing dinner long ago at the Paris’ Café Anglais, whose celebrated female chef was the toast of the city.  His response to the meal is extreme delight amid waves of incredulity: that he should be dining like a king on the rarest of all meals in, uh, the Danish outback.

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Little does he know, wildly improbable though it is, that the same chef now works the kitchen just a few feet away.  After all, Babette wishes no thanks or recognition for what she does but simply the pleasure of preparing it for the delectation of others and, of course, the pleasure of doing her art, from which she has long decades been denied.  She wants only to create.  Try taking Mozart or Cliburn from the piano.  How she gets the money to pay for this dinner, the same meal for 12 costing ten thousand francs at the Café Anglais, well, watch the film, and if you already have, watch it again as a gesture of gratitude and self-education.

Wonder and thanksgiving (doxology) for the goodness of being alive and, “in this beautiful world of ours,” as the General puts it, replete with luscious bounty of all sorts–for palate, eye, ear, and touch.  All of this can indeed reorient the self, as was intended as far back as Eden, which was, above all, a garden for earthly delight.  It is Babette’s mysterious gift, as the General reports, quoting another, “to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.”  Indeed, the urgings of the biblical account of life on this tiny globe provides ample cause for a sensible sort of Christian hedonism and, first and last, abundant doxology for the gift of being alive in this splendorous world. Such is the wondrous habitation the Lord has provided creatures of all kinds, albeit one also fraught with abundant corrosive evil.  Babette’s Feast makes this abundantly clear, urging enchantment as a sensible, and in countless ways, necessary and blessed posture while making one’s way through this ever so “beautiful world.”