Babette's Feast (1987)
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The story is quite simple. In the 1800s, two elderly maiden ladies (Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer) reside in remote Jutland, where they have sacrificed their lives, romantic possibilities, and personal happiness in order to continue their long-dead father's religious ministry to the small flock he served. One of the women's youthful admirers sends to them a Frenchwoman, Babette (Stéphane Audran), whose husband and son have been killed in France and who has fled her homeland lest she meet the same fate. Although they do not really require her services, the sisters engage her as maid and cook--and as the years pass her cleverness and tireless efforts on their behalf enables the aging congregation to remain together and the sisters to live in more comfort than they had imagined; indeed, the entire village admires and depends upon her.
One day, however, Babette receives a letter: she has won a lottery and is now, by village standards, a wealthy woman. Knowing that her new wealth will mean her return to France, the sisters grant her wish that she be allowed to prepare a truly French meal for them and the members of their tiny congregation. The meal and the evening it is served is indeed a night to remember--but not for reasons that might be expected, for Babette's feast proves to be food for both body and soul, and is ultimately her gift of love to the women who took her in and the villagers who have been so kind to her.
The film is extraordinary in every way, meticulous in detail yet not overpowering in its presentation of them. As the film progresses, we come to love the characters in both their simple devotion to God and their all-too-human frailties, and the scenes in which Babette prepares her feast and in which the meal is consumed are powerful, beautiful, and incredibly memorable. There have been several films that have used food as a metaphor for love, but none approach the simple artistry and beauty of BABETTE'S FEAST, which reminds us of all the good things about humanity and which proves food for both body and soul. Highly, highly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Babette. Their yearnings, desires, sacrifices resonant long after the movie has ended. Seeing it years ago--as it was gaining a great deal of notoriety at the audaciousness of its subject matter--half the movie being a single dinner--the audience was "oohing and aahing" as some of the courses took their final
glorious shape, laughing at the reaction of the diners, as they became totally seduced by the gustatorial pleasures being introduced to them by Babette, and being totally surprised at the turn of events at the end of the film. Subsequently seeing the film years later after my own twists and turns of life, I realized just how profound the film is. On this viewing tears flowed freely. The film's
meditation on the passage of time and the way it uses a seemingly simple story to comment on life and love and art and generosity is truly something to
How shockingly refreshing.
There is an undercurrent to this film that gives it the feel of a Garrison Keillor monologue, in that it is built around people's personal foibles and quirks.
Even more refreshing is how "Babette's Feast" manages to be nice without becoming cloying, saccharine, facile, superficial or insincere. People's personal passions are portrayed not only from their own perspective, but from the perspective of the people they affect, with more realism than you usually get in film, yet also with sincere and infectious optimism.
If you don't come away from "Babette's Feast" smiling and feeling better, then you must have been distracted from giving it your full attention. This is one of those very rare films that you can recommend to everyone you know. It is truly in a class by itself. Like Mary Poppins, "Practically perfect in every way."
Utterly charming and subtly stunning.
Take the style of Ingmar Bergman, stir in some Lutheranism, add a dash of Guy De Maupassant, a pinch of Chekov (such a severe and forbidding brew!). Mix well with the grand cuisine of nineteenth century France and what do you have? Babette's Feast!
Our story (from an Isak Dinesen short story) is of two lovely maiden sisters from Jutland, the pious daughters of a stern and dictatorial minister, who spurn their chance for love to remained devoted to their austere Protestant creed and to their puritanical and selfish father. We are subjected to the bleak, harsh winters, to the endless hours of knitting, to the long silences and the sighs upon sighs... Ah, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Swedes, how beautifully they brood! We see the barren beauty of Martina, who so enchanted the young cavalryman that when he could not melt her cold, cold heart, he instead vowed to be a success, and succeeded! And then there came the baritone from the Paris opera who heard her sister Phillipa's soprano voice at choir and fell immediately and hopeless in love with her, and sought to train her voice and carry her away. But no, he too could not melt the snows of her near Arctic heart, and so returned to Paris where he played out his (now) empty career.
Flash forward to the entrance of Babette, whom the opera singer sends many years later to the sisters to hide from the strife in France. She will be an angel of gastronomy, household management and common sense who will mend their souls and fill them with joy.
This is a tale of unrequited love. Of love that festers and longs and does not die. How I adore the love stories where the love is never consummated! I love the years of yearning, the melancholy realization that it could never work, and yet, and yet... And then when they are old and past any pretense, how wonderful it is to know that the anticipation, the savoring, the longing, the utter lack of finality, how wonderful THAT was, and how superior to a banal consummation!
But then, such is not the usual taste. Speaking of tastes, this is not a movie to see on an empty stomach. The climatic feast of turtle soup, quail in pastry, rich sauces, dessert, fromage, fruit, etc., washed down with amontillado, champagne, etc. will wet your appetite. A little stunning for this modest epicure was the Clos de Vougeot, 1845 that the general so admired. Can you imagine how beautiful that wine was, and what it would fetch today!
This is also a tale of Christian piety, and a joining of the Protestant and the Catholic, of how a Lutheran might learn from a Papist, of how the temperate zone might warm the north. How food really is a sacrament.
Anyway, we know from the moment Babette comes to the austere, but grand old pious ladies to cook for them that she is something special. When the ladies show her how to precisely prepare the mundane Danish meals of bread soup and soaked, smoked flounder, we know immediately that she is a great cook; after all she is Parisian, and an opera star has signified her as such. But she modestly says not a word and learns the Danish names and follows faithfully the Danish recipes, as though she were an ingenue. She works for nothing, having lost her family to the bloodshed in France, and what has she to live for but to do what she has to do and do it right. And does she ever!
Babette's Feast is as heart-warming as a Disney tale would love to be. It is as uplifting as a stirring Sousa march, and as satisfying as a seven-course meal at the Grand Hotel in Paris, France. It starts like a novel from the nineteenth century, slow and studied, and before you know it, has captured your fancy. Director Gabriel Axel unfolds the story with precision and a careful attention to detail, but ultimately with an invisible simplicity and economy. What he is saying in the end, is what he has the general pronounce after the sensuous meal (which is quite a moral extravagance, perhaps even a sinfulness for the pious flock): "Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another."
Someday, one hopes in this world, they shall.
"I was able to make them happy when I gave of my very best. ... Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: give me the chance to do my very best."
I spent nine years producing experimental multi-media music theater in San Francisco, raising money for productions that involved dozens of singers, actors, designers, etc., and the artists I supported stretched every penny in their effort to do their very best. They were just like Babette: they were desperate to get every dollar necessary to do their very best work. Babette's art is fine French cooking, and for her to perform her art at its very best costs 10,000 francs. When, after years in political exile from France, isolated with two caring spinsters on a bleak Scandinavian coast, she suddenly gets a windfall of 10,000 francs, she does what every real artist would do: she sees that she unexpectedly has the chance to do her very best, and so she does it. She spends all the money so that she can do her very best work as an artist. The twist in the movie is that we don't know she is such an artist, until she is actually cooking and serving the meal. Up until then, she appears to be just a working-class French lady who haggles a bit with the tradesmen, and is very serious (her husband and son were murdered in Paris violence in 1871).
To such an artist, it is secondary whether there is an audience for the art that is competent to appreciate it. That is why the author set this dinner in a community of people who could not possibly have any understanding of what they are receiving. Babette did not cook this meal as a gift to the two spinsters, or to the religious community. It was not her goal to achieve a reconciliation or spirit of good feelings among the members of the little religious sect. Indeed, she never once leaves the kitchen to speak to any of them. After the meal, she is sitting alone, sipping some wine, not paying the slightest attention to how the guests reacted. She is basking in the satisfaction of finally having the chance to have done her best as an artist.
That is why it is so satisfying, and so important to the story, that the General unexpectedly shows up -- for, as Babette knows instantly, a general will know what she has placed before him, and will appreciate it. For there is a sort of tragedy in a great work of art being shown to an audience that lacks even one person competent to appreciate it. She is glad, very glad, he came, in fact he is the only guest she ever mentions during the entire dinner, the only one she singles out for special treatment -- not either of the spinsters. But she did not plan the meal knowing that such a person would come to receive it.
To anyone who has had the chance to enjoy a real first-class Parisian dinner, as I have (my father was Naval Attache to Paris in the 1980s, and I had my honeymoon in France), this dinner, and Babette's satisfaction in making it, and the pleasure it brings to the diners, is absolutely convincing. If any art has the power to suffuse the recipient with a sense of joy, it is a fine French meal cooked and served in France. This movie makes a claim about the transformative effects of great art on the recipients. Before the dinner, the members of the little religious sect are quarrelsome, dredging up old resentments. The old hymns fail to restore good fellowship; people ignore them, talk over them. But the shared experience of sensual great art -- for the people can enjoy the tastes of the foods and wines even if they have no conception that they are experiencing great art -- contents the people, puts them in a forgiving mood, reconciles them, and by making them happy, encourages them to love each other, and thus has a god-like sacred effect of bringing peace. This is the claim found in the modern art movement today -- that art can supplant the traditional religions in making mankind more peaceful. Thus, contrary to those commentators here who say that this film speaks for the power of Christian belief, it is more accurate to say that the film claims that art can heal wounds that Christian ritual cannot. After all my years in the art world, I have to say that this claim -- that art brings peace that religion cannot -- is overblown and invalid. But it is a pretty conceit and it is the second main theme of this beautiful film.
One last note: at Babette's arrival at the spinsters' home, a particular French general, Galliffet, is named as the person who in 1871 executed Babette's husband and son, and imposed a military rule that she had to flee. At the end of the film, as the General tells the story of the magnificent meal he enjoyed in Paris many years before (before 1871), at the conclusion of some military maneuvers, it turns out that this same Galliffet was his host at the meal. As the General tells the story, French general Galliffet praised the chef of that meal as the greatest woman, the only woman he would risk his life for. Of course, that woman was Babette. Thus, ironically, the same French general who said he honored Babette above all other women was responsible for driving her away from France forever.
The story, set in a turn-of-the-century Danish villages is about two very religious sisters whose late father was a rigid priest who discouraged all their dreams of love and exploring the world and its many beauty. They are now old and their life and beauty spent. Their quiet new help - whom they "teach" to cook - is Babette (played by the lovely Stephane Audran who graced so many of her husband Claude Chabrol's films). The life in the village is simple and the stark direction reflects that.
When Babette wins the lottery, she requests a chance to prepare a feast - a true labour of love. The course of the feast and its Chief Guest reveal messages of love and spirituality and how there are many ways to love God and life.
This is a must-see for the devotion with which Babette prepares the feast and for the speech the General gives at the end. Possibly the best international film of the 1980's.
I gather it's Dinesen's point how the world is drawn inexplicably to Christian dedication, when Philippa is rejected by her only serious suitor (because he fears he'll never measure up to the rules and rigors of her small religious clique), and he returns to find her mistress of whom he regards as the greatest chef on the continent. I figure it's also her point that Christ answers the doubts and regrets of those who give up worldly success (Philippa's sister Martina rebuffs efforts by a visiting baritone (Jean-Philippe Lafont whose jolliness creates an uplifting counterpoint to the sparsity of spirit that surrounds his discovery) to turn her into an opera star; the title character leaves France and an enviable reputation and seeks sanctuary as the servant of two spinster sisters) to pursue artistic triumphs for only God and those closest to Him to witness. But it's Axel who weaves the asperity of these people's lives with the richness of Martina's voice and Babette Hersant's table and effects a sumptuousness you'd never expect from a movie about sacrifice, faith, and religious conviction.
What sets this movie apart from other religious movies is its sly humor. "Babette's Feast," that is, the banquet itself--a posthumous commemoration of the minister's 100th birthday--is a beautifully orchestrated clash of sensibilities that delivers comic moments by an ensemble of actors that are unparalleled in their subtlety. It's just this deft comedy that enriches the solemn sentiments at closing. Together they do something pious movies seldom do. They leave a believer tremulously hopeful and unexpectedly resolute and humbled.
Being a fan of the movie, "Out Of Africa," this film piqued my interest because it's based on a short novel by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the major character in that film.
The meal - Babette's feast - was amazing. I'm no chef, but I was impressed! How one interprets the story, too, varies, I suppose depending on how much you read into this, and where you stand religion-wise. If the latter, how you look at the definition of "legalism" can affect how you interpret this story.
In any case, it's a fine film, but don't watch this if you're dieting.
Unbeknownst to those who so generously take her in, she is a great chef, an artist of food. Babette gives herself to her adopted community through thrift, productivity, and shared faith. She leaves only when she wins the French lottery--10,000 francs. She returns laden with exotic cargo, the makings of a single meal commemorating the birthday of the sister's father, the community's founder.
This meal looms darkly in the minds of the pleasure-denying faithful but its subtleties are translated by an aging military officer who, as a young man in Paris, learned to appreciate the sensory experience unfolding here. The meal is the film's climax, a communion of love in the transitory artistry of food--unaffectedly uplifting about art, love, and the meaning of life.
The final sentence that give a title to Babette's sacrifice far from Paris: An artist is never poor.
Superb photography. Many situations depict portraits and landscapes as they were styled on canvas there, in Jutland, in 18th century.
Babette is an artist whose medium is food. Perhaps no other art form allows the artist to share her creations so directly.
The main theme of this movie, the potential that the sharing of food has to transform how people see each other and how they see the world, is much the same as the theme of "Chololat," but "Babette's Feast" does not hit you over the head with its message. The townspeople are conservative puritans, but not exaggeratedly oppressive. You come to understand and respect them and ultimately to appreciate their humanity.
Many issues are raised for you to reflect on: the nature of art, the contemplation of paths taken and paths not taken, the relationship between the spiritual and the physical, the effect of environment on behavior, the taking of life to give life, among others.
The only disappointment for me was General Loewenhielm's speech delivered at the climax of the meal. I expected deep heartfelt observations, but I got some vague mystical ramblings. The speech had such a minimal impact that I hardly remember it.
But this understated film leaves a lasting impression. The warmth it generates is in contrast to its austere backdrop. You will leave the theater wanting to go out and dance under the stars.
It is the little things - the postmaster/shop keeper puffs out his chest and goes in to get his cap before delivering a letter from !France!. The General's bemused expression as his delight in a bunch of perfect grapes elicits a biblical reference with a profundity worthy of 'Being There'.
The cinematography is awesome and the bleak minimalist village with its washed out colour just accentuates the sumptuousness of the feast when it comes. I have a friend who claims to be descended from the Borgias and who's family motto is 'If it is worth doing, it is worth doing to excess' - Amen.
I laugh out loud and cry each time I watch this film