I realized I have been watching a lot of cooking films recently, including Who’s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), Ratatouille (2007), and Big Night (1996). Alongside movies, cooking is one of the passions of my life, so of course it is wonderful when the culinary and cinematic arts can be brought together. Babette’s Feast is often mentioned as one of the great food films, but it is one that I had never seen, so I decided to watch is as a sort of main course.
Babette’s Feast is often described as being full of whimsy, but its pacing, rhythm, color schemes and tone are all thoroughly Scandanavian, making for a somber film which is still offer a plethora of quiet delights. The script is based on a story by Isak Dinesen, the pen name of Danish Karen Blixen, who also wrote the novels and short stories that were the basis of the film Out of Africa. This story is also of an outsider who arrives in a foreign land. The title character is a French cook, one of two servants employed by two unmarried sisters who live in an isolated village on the barren coast of Jutland. The sisters are the daughters of a pastor who founded his own Lutheran sect. The pastor has been dead for years, and his two daughters look after the aging parishioners and devote themselves to piety. How they came to have a French cook in their kitchen is a complicated story, told in flashbacks that show the sisters as beautiful young women who are courted by a variety of suitors, including a French opera tenor who visits Jutland to rest. When he asks the father for his daughter’s hand, the pastor replies in the same way he has to all previous suitors, saying that he cannot have his daughters taken from him. Years later, all of the potential suitors have married other women, and sisters are unmarried, when a French arrives bearing a letter from the opera star. The letter explains that Babette was fleeing the violence of the Paris Commune and needed a job. Fearful of outsiders, the sisters reluctantly put her to work in the kitchen, where she quietly works, and gradually settles into the small town.
The only link Babette has with her home country is a lottery ticket which she has a friend renew each year. When she wins 10,000 franc, she decides to hold a feast for the village. The villagers, who seem to eat nothing but dried fish, are dumbstruck when live quail, turtles, pineapples, crates of wine, and other provisions begin arriving in the island. Worried that enjoying such food would probably constitute a mortal sin, they all agree to accept the food and eat it, but not express any enjoyment of it.
Another former suitor, now a decorated general married to a noble lady, arrives in time for the feast, but not knowing of their austere arrangement, rhapsodizes openly over the rare vintages and succulent dishes. Nearly swooning over the Caille en Sarcophage (tiny boned quails cooked in puff pastry), he comments that it is very like something that he once ate at the famed Parisian restaurant Café Anglais, which had a female chef. The sisters do not learn until after the meal that Babette was that very chef and that she has spent her entire lottery winnings on the ingredients and tableware. But the meal is much more than a formerly celebrated chef’s return to past glories. As the pious sisters and villagers and eat course after sumptuous course, the begin to actually enjoy the meal despite their resolve not to. Their firmly held gnostic beliefs that the physical life and the spiritual life are complete separate begin to fade. The general, before taking his leave, confesses to Martine that he has always held her in his heart, and she at least acknowledges his confession without throwing him out on his ear. Babette has not only given them the gift of an unforgettable meal, but has taught them how to reconcile their deeply-held beliefs with the desire to enjoy life.