Grace and beauty in “Babette’s Feast”

Grace and beauty in “Babette’s Feast” July 20, 2016

Still from Babette's Feast, 1987.

Hey everyone, Chris here. I’m currently on vacation with my family. But awhile back, I was introduced to a new film writer whose insights I’m greatly enjoying. His name is John Irwin and he blogs about film at beezfilms.blogspot.com. Looking at his list of favorite films, I found that we shared a few in common, and I asked him if he’d like to write about one of our shared favorites, one I’ve wanted to write about for awhile but just haven’t had the time. So today, enjoy this guest post from John Irwin about the wonderful “Babette’s Feast.” 

Babette’s Feast has the simplicity and wisdom of a good fable. Martine and Philippa are elderly women living in a remote Danish village in the 19th century. Their late father was a visionary pastor and founder of a Protestant sect, one based on good works and pious austerity. The two sisters lead the remnant of his congregation, a dwindling, aging group.

In their youth, Martine and Fillipa (who, a grandmotherly narrator informs us, were named after Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon) were great beauties. Both sisters were courted by men from vastly different worlds. Lorens, a dissolute young cavalry officer from Sweden, is infatuated with Martine from first sight. He is captivated by her beauty, and what she represents – a way of life different from his own, dedicated to principles nobler than social prestige and worldly pleasures. But he quickly realizes that any romance between them is impossible, as he could never belong in her world. Heartbroken, he returns to fashionable society.

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Filippa is approached by Achille Papin, a French opera star visiting Jutland for his health, after he hears her beautiful voice during a church service. Papin gives Filippa singing lessons and harbors dreams of bringing her to Paris, where she can become a great diva of the stage. They practice a duet from the opera “Don Giovanni,” a romantic seduction where the woman protests that she is afraid of her own joy – which also reflects Filippa’s feelings. She is overwhelmed by Papin’s passion, and by her own joy when expressed so ostentatiously through song. She rejects Papin’s offers, choosing a life of humility and rejecting one of artistic glory and fame.

The sisters grow old together, until one stormy night a stranger appears at their doorstep – a desperate, exhausted Frenchwoman named Babette. She hands them a letter from Achille Papin explaining that Babette is a refugee fleeing from revolutionary violence in Paris. Her family has been killed, and Papin knows that she will find a helping hand from these Christian ladies. Martine and Filippa welcome Babette warmly, and she becomes their faithful cook and housekeeper.

After many years of service, Babette makes an unusual request – she would like to prepare a French meal for the sisters and their congregation as a gift of gratitude. The sisters accept, but are horrified when they realize what an elaborate feast Babette is preparing. They fear that sensual excess will expose them to unholy temptations, that they will be holding “a witch’s Sabbath” in their father’s house. In a secret meeting with their congregation, they all agree to eat and drink so as not to offend Babette, but to receive no pleasure from any of it.

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Lorens also attends the feast as a guest of his ancient aunt, a member of the congregation. As courses are set, he reacts with surprised delight at finding such a sophisticated feast in rural Jutland, while the elderly Puritans eye the unfamiliar, lavish dishes with suspicion. But as they begin to eat, though not a word of overt approval passes their lips, their distrust melts away, replaced by the contentment and delight that a good meal brings.

Much of “Babette’s Feast” is about the seeming impossibility of uniting two ways of life. Martine, Filippa, and their congregation live in service and humble self-abnegation. Their community is like the windswept landscape of the Jutland coast: stark and harsh, but pure and honest. Yet something is missing. They sing of bountiful joys in the next life, but fear earthly joys. They speak of God’s mercy, but have little mercy for each other. Their congregation has grown brittle and quarrelsome, bitterly dwelling on past sins and grudges.

On the other hand, Lorens and Papin have pursued nothing but earthly glories. They have lived for art, passion, and all the fine things society can give. Yet something is missing. Both men regret that they did not build anything more lasting, that their pleasures were so fleeting. “All is vanity”, the aging Lorens laments while studying himself in the mirror.

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Babette is a mystery for much of the film. What life did she leave behind in France? What does she dream of while she serves the sisters so steadfastly? While preparing the feast, she reveals the soul of both an artist and a servant.

Lorens is inspired to give a speech during the feast. He quotes from Psalm 85, “for mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”  Babette’s feast magically unites what once seemed in opposition – mercy and truth, righteousness and bliss, physical pleasure and spiritual elation. It is a luxurious, elaborate meal, but one prepared with selfless love and sacrifice, and received with gratitude, not just gratification.

“Babette’s Feast” should not be watched on an empty stomach. Cinematic food has never looked so delicious. The entire last act shows, in patient detail, the preparation and eating of the grand meal. That may not sound like an exciting climax, but director Gabriel Axel crafts the sequence with the exactitude and virtuosity of a master chef. There is little dialogue or music – Axel lingers on the sounds of a crackling kitchen fire, wine poured into glasses, spoons clinking against the bottom of bowls, the crunch of cooked quail heads as they’re bitten into. Axel also focuses on faces. The diners’ severe features gradually brighten and redden with unexpected pleasure; by the end of the meal, Babette’s sweaty, tired face expresses the satisfaction of a job well done and worth doing.

Like a good meal, “Babette’s Feast” is warming, satisfying, and will lighten your spirits. It is a film of quiet humor and radical generosity, a simple story with rich rewards for those who will savor it.

Visit John Irwin’s blog.

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