Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud)
Denmark (1987) Dir. Gabriel Axel
This gentle Oscar winning tale from Denmark is based on a short story by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), which was part of her final published work. It is perhaps with some perspicacity that Babette’s Feast has a valedictorian feel to it, elegiac even, as it tells a story of sacrifice and the rewards it can bring, while musing on the value of leaving a lasting impression.
Set in late 19th century two Catholic sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), live in tiny remote coastal village in Jutland, Denmark. Their father (Pouel Kern) was the village pastor, very strict with their upbringing. As young women Martine (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stensgaard) received many suitors – including a Swedish cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm (Gudmar Klöving) and a Paris opera singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) – but their father would drive them away.
Now both elderly spinsters, the sisters continue their now deceased father’s traditions, although the congregation is dwindling. One night a French Revolution refugee, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran), arrives at their door, with a letter from Papin, asking them to take Babette as their housekeeper got no wages, which the sisters accept. Fourteen years later Babette learns that she has won 10,000 France in the lottery, but she asks just one thing of the sisters – to let her cook a French meal for the centenary of their father’s birth.
The old maxim of “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is given something of a metaphysical twist to include women and the deeply pious who have denied themselves a lifetime of pleasure. Blixen also explores the popular theme of unrequited or undying love while quietly paying homage to the noble gesture of paying it forward.
Blixen’s original story was set in Norwegian harbour town which director Gabriel Axel felt was too glamorous for such a poignant story with themes of pious austerity, so he shifted the location to a small grey fishing village. While Blixen’s choice may have worked in print, one cannot deny that Axel’s vision is far more suitable and apt, the rural claustrophobia being apposite to the frugality of the characters.
It’s hard to say if Blixen was mocking the stuffiness of religion as there is no trace of bitterness or cynicism found in the writing, but by the same token one does find their heart aching for the two beautiful sisters who could have had successful and fulfilling lives had their devotion and filial piety not been so overwhelming that they chose abstinence over their own happiness.
But as the story unfolds they eventually receive their reward, reminding us that fate is a funny thing. Martine could have become the wife of a Swedish general and lived a charmed life while Phillipa could have tread the boards as a famous opera singer alongside Papin, delighting everyone with her angelic voice. Had this happened Babette wouldn’t have been sent to Jutland by Papin and they wouldn’t have benefited from such a skilled housekeeper.
As the titular character Babette is something of a mystery and the least fleshed out of the main cast. We know she is French, her family were killed in the revolution and she is a quick learning housekeeper. There is a hint of Mary Poppins about Babette as she eventually beguiles and bemuses the villagers with her charm, business savvy and cooking but she is no magical manna from heaven.
The first half of the film is a rather slow paced look at life in Jutland, the only colour coming from the radiance of the sisters in their youth. Their father clearly knew the value of their appeal as the male attendance to his sermons was unusually high, even if they didn’t pay the slightest bit attention to him. Even as older women they both cut handsome figures with a slight air of “what if?” about them as they quietly knit the hours away.
Babette’s arrival doesn’t energise the pacing or lift the mood above maudlin until she gets to work on the big feast. Comprising of seven courses Babette imports the ingredients from France, and the congregation nearly faint when they see the exotic fare being brought in, a far cry from the porridge and bread they are used to. Fearing the meal would be a smorgasboard of temptation and sin they all agree to say nothing to avoid offending Babette.
However, as a former Paris resident this feast is familiar to last minute guest General Löwenhielm (played by Ingmar Bergmann alumnus Jarl Kulle) and everyone looks to him for his opinion, leading to some amusing exchanges with the bemused parishioners. When Löwenhielm recognises a fine wine one chap replies “Yes and they say it will snow tomorrow”!
Everything comes together in the film’s denouement, putting that final piece in the puzzle into place to complete the picture. The reason Papin chose the sister to take in Babette was no accident and while the presence of Löwenhielm was pure happenstance it paid dividends in ensuring Babette’s purpose was fully realised.
Axel has assembled a rich and experienced cast to bring this tale alive, with two of Denmark’s most respected veteran actresses in Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer (an award has been named after her) ably leading the charge. Catherine Denueve was the original choice for the role of Babette but Stéphane Audran took the role after a recommendation from her ex-husband Claude Chabrol. Audran plays Babette with grace and humility, hiding a nuanced sense of pathos.
It is rare to experience a film that is so gentle and often uptight that it borders on the anodyne but Babette’s Feast is just that, until it explodes with a culinary conclusion to leave us heartily satisfied. Beautifully acted, humbly shot and warmly directed this film is as sumptuous as the title suggests – but don’t watch on an empty stomach, it might be the longest 98 minutes of your life!