This Oscar-winning Danish drama starts off slow and restrained, but ends up as a moving celebration of food and art, with possibly the greatest seven-course meal ever put onscreen.
Films about the transformative power of food (Chocolat, Ratatouille to name a couple) are typically also about sensuality, artistic creation, or both. This 1987 movie about an evening of exquisite gastronomic delights experienced by a circle of Puritan villagers in 19th century Denmark is a fine addition to this sub-genre.
Babette of the title is a French refugee fleeing bloodshed in her native Paris, who is taken in by two sisters, Martine and Philippa, living in a tiny Lutheran Danish coastal village. The first half of the film tells the story of how the two Danish ladies ended up with a French cook, which began when they were two beautiful young women, faithfully tending to their stern minister father who is not keen on losing them to suitors. Despite these restrictions, Martine and Philippa are both courted by the outsiders: Martine by a dashing cavalry officer, and Philippa by a French opera star who is smitten both by her beauty and her singing talent. However the young women quietly retreat from their advances, and both men leave the village broken-hearted.
Thirty-five years later, Martine and Philippa look after their late father’s flock, having denied themselves a life of family joys and worldly pleasures. Then a distraught woman appears on their doorstep, bearing a letter from Philippa’s old French admirer, who is asking them to offer refuge to Babette after she was forced to flee Paris. Babette stays with the sisters for the next fourteen years, until one day she comes into a fair bit of money thanks to a friend back in France who renewed her lottery ticket every year. Instead of bidding adieu and returning to her former life in France, Babette makes what seems like an eccentric request to Martine and Philippa: could she prepare a real French feast for the sisters and their congregation, in honour of their father’s upcoming 100th birthday?
With its sombre visual palette, Babette’s Feast immerses the viewer into the austere, self-denying world of its characters, where abundance of pleasure and passion is viewed with suspicion if not fear (without excessive sneering at their religious piety like some other film would be tempted to do). Babette’s decadent meal, with its exotic and sumptuous ingredients that have to be imported from abroad, is something like an exploding bomb – but one that explodes silently, as all the attending Puritans vow beforehand to not utter a single word about the food. Their pleasure however still lets itself known in subtle ways, through the brightened expressions, eager sipping of wine, and the healing of community rifts that this glorious food brings about. The feast scene is also an occasion for some rare humour: Martine’s old flame, now a general, happens to attend the dinner, and is baffled when his effusive praises of food and wine meet a brick wall.
Enigmatic Babette, whose elaborate and mouth-watering preparations in the kitchen are covered as extensively, emerges as the most moving figure in the entire film, and the one who finds true satisfaction, not found in pursuit of fame, ambition or piety. For her, pleasure, happiness or praise are rather beside the point: true artists, she says, merely want a chance to do their best.
P.S. I’ve never heard of a bread-and-ale porridge before and I’m on a fence whether I ever want to try it.
P.P.S. After the movie was over, I of course headed off to my local deli store for some savoury treats, even if they might not be on the level of French turtle soup and quail in puff pastry shell.