Babette’s Feast: It’s Food, So What’s the Big Deal?

By

I’m deeply grateful that Jason Gray mentioned this movie in the reply of a recent post. It won an Academy Award in 1987 for Best Foreign Language film. I’ve intended to see it for a long time and Jason’s recommendation was the final inspiration that brought me to move it up in my Netflix queue.

It’s a movie of understated beauty. The Danish landscape is filmed with muted browns, grays, and yellows. Though the topography is overgrown and rough, its muted colors seem an appropriate backdrop for the grave, ascetic characters that inhabit the small Danish fishing village in which the the film is set.

Young and pretty sisters, Martina and Philippa are courted by two handsome and apparently honorable men. When it appears each respective relationship may advance, their father–a fervent Protestant clergyman–subtly manipulates circumstances to keep his pious daughters home. And there they stay, even when their father passes on. It’s as if he controls their choices, even from the grave.

The sisters are part of the kind of religious community, a sect really, which on the surface, is hard to fault. There are pious meetings, weighty hymns, and significant devotion to caring for the sick and poor. Collectively, this group seems to live a life of self-discipline, self-denial, but little obvious joy. We see few children in the community, no great surprise. Rigorous religious observances are never missed, but celebrated with little pleasure.

Years go by. Then, one night in a raging storm, Babette (Stephane Audran) knocks on the front door of the cottage shared by the sisters. She carries a letter of introduction from one of the sister’s long lost loves, the famous opera singer Achille Papin, now retired, who sent Babette from France. Having lost both her husband and son in the Paris Commune, Babette, he explains, needs political sanctuary. At first, the sisters kindly refuse to bring Babette into their modest home. But when Babette offers her housekeeping services for free, their last objection disintegrates.

The arrangement works. The three women mesh in a relationship which benefits all. The sister’s beliefs prevent showy forms of affection, but it’s obvious that the years generate reciprocal respect and love among the women. Fast forward fourteen years.

The sisters wish to acknowledge the 100th birthday of their highly esteemed father with a simple, unpretentious dinner. Anything more would be too ostentatious. Meanwhile, Babette wins a large sum of money in an early version of the lottery (the lottery’s modern form can be traced to 15th-century Europe). Babette offers to prepare and finance the meal for the sisters, with one caveat; that the feast be a French extravaganza. Reluctantly, because Babette insists, the sisters finally agree.

Later, fueled by the ernest admonitions of their congregation and second thoughts of their own, the sisters implore their group to ignore the lavish meal. To enjoy such a functional endeavor such as a meal would be inappropriate. They may eat, but nothing must be said of the meal. It must not be acknoweleged; certainly not praised.

On the day of the celebration, they receive word that a member of their group, Mrs. Lowenhielm will bring her nephew, none other than Lorens Lowenhielm. He’s the long lost boyfriend of one of the sisters, from the early years, and now an esteemed decorated general. He, of course, knows nothing of the group’s covert plan to behave matter of factly about the dinner. His presence at the meal is the mechanism by which I was most moved, both by laughter and poignancy.

How can the preparation and serving of a meal be the effective centerpiece of a film? Just watch. As Babette prepares the feast, with expert timing, skill, and artistic flair, somewhere along the line I realized that the preparation and serving of the meal was transcendent. As the best art defies category and rigid definition, so Babette’s feast becomes more than food on the table. Her seven course masterpiece of fine food and drink is expertly crafted. Contrasted with the staid fish of the day the townspeople endure, the culinary explosion of Babette’s feast is palpable, even for an observer. Watching members of the sober congregation deflect Mr. Lowenhielm’s effusive praise of the meal with their own references to the weather or anything but the food, brings plenty of laughs. There’s a pink elephant in the room, which nobody acknowledges. That is, until the general speaks up.

After he can bear it no more, the general taps his glass and rises to his feet:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

The general’s eloquent words reflected thoughts that were gently percolating in my mind as I enjoyed this film. I can’t say that it was the filmmakers intention, but as I observed the wonderful feast I saw it as a picture of divine, unmitigated mercy (after watching the film, I read at least six reviews, none of which mentioned this). At this representation of divine character, I felt the release of tears. Here we have an unseen culinary maestro, hidden in the kitchen. Her masterful design is happily and graciously bestowed upon her guests. Their nonchalent attitude doesn’t change her. She’s graciously doing what she does because of who she is and the love she has for the sisters.

In this wonderful world, we are given devine freedom to partake. We are given much to choose. Often, decisions are approached with tripidation, not gusto. Like the members of this largely kind-hearted congregation, appearances and the mechanics of behavior take precedence over expressions of the spirit. The heart is shackled and subdued by lies. Meanwhile, it wants to soar. Leave fear behind. Come. Eat. Taste. Savor. Enjoy!

As the movie draws to a close, it is revealed that Babette spent all of her lottery winnings on importing and paying for the expensive ingredients. When the sisters learn this, one gently admonishes Babette, suggesting that she will now be poor for the rest of her life. Babette’s reply encapsulates one of the film’s themes: “An artist is never poor.”

Indeed. And one doesn’t need specific artistic skills to be considered an artist. An artist is one that looks at life with passion, distinction, and nuance. He has a desire to discover beauty in the nooks and crannies our world. No. He is driven to discover beauty in the nooks and crannies of our world. Like an artist that uses his God given imagination to create beauty, so the passive artist uses his creativity to notice beauty in the world. Those that choose such a perspective possess great riches.


23 Comments

  1. evie

    Mr. McLey!!! Oh, blessings be upon your head, dear man! You have done it! You have said, in many perfect words, what would have taken me many more, but sadly less well-put-together words to express how I feel about this movie!! See what I mean? I use so many words to say so little. Shut up Evie. What I want to say is….
    THANK YOU.

    My reply to the recent “On the Table: A Common Thread” post, in case anyone accidentally skimmed over it because of its obvious, noted verbosity….
    “This movie is slow, methodical, sleepy (in the best way possible), until the last 45 minutes roll around. It positively drips with sacred themes (and wine, exotic fruits and seemingly sinful luxury.) When Martina learns that Babette, their maidservant from France, has spent 10,000 francs on the dinner she prepares at the end of the film, she says ‘But now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life.’ Babette answers, so delicately, her grey eyes shining with tears, ‘An artist is never poor.’ And this is where Evie fell apart. I sobbed uncontrollably. “

  2. Phillip

    What a film; it helped shift my perspective on art. Heck, it helped change my perspective on life. I wasn’t too impressed the first time I watched, but it has grown on me more and more every time I think about it.

  3. Bethany

    This is a great film. I also highly recommend the short story by Isak Dinesen which it is based on. It might be a little difficult to find, but it’s worth it. If only Dinesen had included the recipes!

  4. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    A little gem of a movie – I’m grateful that something I said reignited your interest! I first heard about it in an old issue of “Image: A Journal of Arts & Religion” that was dedicated to religiously significant films.

    For anyone reading this who might venture into seeing it, I guess I would say don’t go to it for entertainment. It’s a foreign film, and like Evie says it’s slow throughout most of it, but if you take it in for what it is, it’s surprisingly moving and without a doubt delightful. What’s beautiful about it to me is how it slowly builds up to the moment you (Curt) described, the speech at the dinner. Those couple minutes of screen time are the pay-off (to me anyway – that and the ‘artist in never poor” line). So bear in mind that the speech that Curt mentioned is the climax of the film, and if that’s enough for you to be satisfied with a movie, then I think you will love this film.

    And like Evie (as she revealed in one of her earlier posts) I’m a sucker for movies that sensualize the food experience!

    And also, your last paragraph there Curt is beautiful – I LOVE the idea of the passive artist whose job it is to notice beauty. Great thought! Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Oh hey! And I just realized that that was our dear family friend Bethany Johnson who left the above comment! Great to have you here in the rabbit room Bethany!!

    JG

  6. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Evie – I remember your description well, Evie. I was remiss forgetting to mention it in the review. When recommendations start popping up willy-nilly from those whose perspectives I respect, it usually doesn’t take long before I partake. 🙂 Thanks for the part you played in that, Evie. This one will probably end up on my long list of all-time favorites.

    It’s interesting that you and Jason both mention the slow pace. In retrospect, you are right, of course. But as I watched the movie, it didn’t seem slow at the time, like I was bored. As you wrote, “Slow in the best way possible.” In such a movie, if I have the sense that a skilled filmmaker is leading me somewhere, I will follow for a long time before losing heart. The tone of this film–though methodical–made it seem as if something important was going to happen.

    Phillip – It’s good to have your perspective. I read a few posts from your blog. As a film student, your input is very much appreciated. I hope you will stick around.

    Bethany – Thanks for the reminder of Isak Dinesen. I intended to mention it, but got carried away and forgot to include it. For those that may not know, she is best known for Out of Africa, her account of what it was like to live in Kenya.

    Jason – As always, thanks for your words, Jason. My dad was a gourmet cook, as an avocation (and wrote a book about “every day gourmet cooking”), and I’ve added the joy of cooking to my many hobbies in the last five or six years, so I love foodie movies too.

    As a side note, I also enjoy checking in on Image: A Journal of Arts & Religion occasionally. Some of those involved are from Seattle Pacific University, where my buddy Bill held a position back in the 90s.

    On another side note, I also watched another one of your film recommendations over the weekend. It was the Lars von Trier film and I loved it. Thanks for that recommedation too.

  7. Profile photo of Evie Coates

    Evie Coates

    @eviecoates

    One of my favorite scenes is when the ‘ingredients’ (live turtles and birds and caviar and….gasp!!…wine) begin arriving and the two sisters hover nervously. It such a hilarious and true depiction of what happens when God brings richness into our lives in ways we don’t expect…or expect to like.

    I also love Lowenhielm’s awesome mustache that moves in a funny way when he eats.

  8. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Yessss! Mustaches are the best!

    And I don’t think I recommended Lars and the Real Girl since I haven’t seen it yet (can’t wait though!!). I think Evie recommended it. Just wanted to give props to Evie 🙂

    And for those interested, Image Journal is the best publication of it’s kind and is worthy of your support – you’d be blessed in reading it! Image is what turned me on to poets like Li Young Lee and is where I first found out about author Mark Helprin and painter Richard Wagner. So many treasures have I discovered through Image. Good stuff!

    JG

  9. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Jason wrote:

    And I don’t think I recommended Lars and the Real Girl since I haven’t seen it yet (can’t wait though!!). I think Evie recommended it. Just wanted to give props to Evie.

    If you are referring to my Lars von Trier reference, I was alluding to Breaking the Waves.

  10. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Oh yes! I know what you’re talking about now – Breaking the Waves! Whoa, you watched it? I referenced it secretly hoping that nobody would watch it because I was afraid it would get me into trouble.

    That’s another film I found out about from Image Journal. Nothing could have prepared me for how much that film would devastate me emotionally. In part, the story is a little bit of a exploration of situational ethics, but it seemed more than that, too. I wept at the end of it. Not a movie I would recommend (it’s rated R for a good reason and requires a very intentional eye towards looking past the story on the screen to the redemptive story that’s happening underneath), but always one that I’m interested to know what other people thought about it.

  11. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Breaking the Waves is the only one I’ve seen, though I’ve been intending to see Dogville for years… You’ve put it back on my radar.

  12. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Jason – (in a whispering tone of voice) Yes, I saw it. Because I’ve seen Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, I wanted to stylistically compare Breaking the Waves with them. They are all Lars von Trier pictures. Because I also don’t recommend it in an unqualified way, I won’t spew forth, which is my natural inclination when a film moves me in the way that Breaking with Waves did.

    I will say this: Have you ever seen such unmitigated beauty in a still shot, as was provided by von Trier with his one minute mini intermissions separating each “chapter,” featuring stunning “stills,” with just enough movement to remind us it’s film, not a photograph, accompanied by American and British popish songs (“Your Song” by Elton John is enough alone to make me lose it without the pretty picture.)?

    Stephen (and Jason) – If it’s possible to love the structure of a movie but not the “message,” then I really did enjoy Dogwood. It reminds me a lot of the play “Our Town” in terms of production design. Sets are sparse and the actors use mime sometimes rather then real props. I thought Dogwood ended with an incredibly cynical message without any real redemptive outcome. “All good will be attacked,” is not far from von Trier’s viewpoint in all three films, but while Dancer in the Dark and Breaking with Waves had a sacrificial, redemptive outcome, Dogwood was just misanthropic.

  13. Stephen @ Rebelling Against Indifference

    Curt, the first time I saw Dogville, I thought the same thing. But now, after my fourth or fifth viewing, I see it differently. The name of Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, is no accident. I think the film is showing us how absolutely ridiculous grace really is, how impossible it is for us to show grace to others on our own strength. We’ll always reach a breaking point. Each time I reach the end of the film, I am amazed again that God has showed grace to me. It reminds me of how, when I am extended grace, I accept it hesitatingly at first, then grow comfortable around it, then take advantage of it and end up abusing grace. The portrayal of this progression in Dogville means that it is not an easy movie to watch, but I think it is an important movie.

  14. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Evie wrote:

    One of my favorite scenes is when the ‘ingredients’ (live turtles and birds and caviar and….gasp!!…wine) begin arriving and the two sisters hover nervously.

    The site of the big turtle on the counter top was hilarious. Did Babette really need a turtle of that size for a little turtle soup? Can you imagine the leftovers? Turtle soup, turtle sandwiches, turtle loaf, and turtle upside down cake galore!

    Stephen – Your perspective makes me want to see it again. I’m still not sure if von Trier is making a political and theological commentary (both?), but no doubt the names he chose for his characters weren’t random (Grace, Moses, Thomas Edison). I look forward to viewing Dogville again with different glasses. Thanks for your viewpoint.

  15. Adam

    Fantastic review on an amazing movie.

    And what about the eucharistic (communion) themes in the movie, they are amazing! This food that acts as more than food, it brings people together, and makes evident “mercy” (read: grace) in their midst. Doesn’t the whole evening just ring of Jesus’ table ministry? I mean the General’s words speak so much to what communion is in my life.

  16. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Adam – What a great reply. As obvious as the eucharistic parallel is, I must admit that it didn’t cross my mind while watching the movie. But you are absolutely right. Looking at the communion angle and at the feast as a last supper only adds to the appeal of this film. Thank you so much for that thought.

  17. Kerry

    I’m glad the Eucharist came up. Babette is definitely a Christ figure, giving all she had for the feast. But there isn’t just a parallel with the Last Supper, but with the worship service of the church as it continues throughout history. It’s no coincidence that the feast comes at the end of the movie, as it did in Jesus’ life on earth, as it does in the Gospels, as it does in the Book of the Revelation (ch. 19), and as it does in the historic practice and liturgy of the church. And the methodical aspect of the meal, as has been mentioned, relates to a liturgical framework. I think the movie is also very much about a reunion of the church, specifically between Catholic (the French Babette) and Protestant (Danish Lutherans, in this case). I won’t air my views here on any of that, other than to make the observation about the movie. It was right after the establishing of the Eucharist that Christ prayed that we might all be one (John 17).

    It is also worth noting that in the favourite song of the Pietistic Lutherans, Christ (if I remember correctly) isn’t mentioned at all (which would explain the gloominess all by itself). The song is about Heaven being our home, which for them entails an escape from this life. It is a Gnostic view of the world in which Creation is despised. It’s a caricature of Protestantism, but caricatures often have more truth than its subjects would like to admit. And there is no room for art in such a world view. But as Chesterton said, “God likes matter; He created it” (or something like that; I don’t have the actual quote on hand). God comes to us through matter, which in this case specifically means the Eucharist. But I’m just giving variations on what other have already said at this point.

    This is my first time on here, so I hope I’m not being too forward here by writing all this. This just happens to be one of my favourite movies.

  18. Tony Heringer

    Curt,

    Well said my man! Films like this one are like oil paintings in motion. There is a classic aspect to them that doesn’t fade with time. In fact they seem to deepen in substance and meaning as we journey along with them in life.

    “Chariots of Fire” was on yesterday and, (like Evie noted in another post) even though we own the movie I was drawn to it. There is a tension in that film of law and grace. Grace being the great companion of mercy.

    In response to this last bit of your review:

    “He is driven to discover beauty in the nooks and crannies of our world. Like an artist that uses his God given imagination to create beauty, so the passive artist uses his creativity to notice beauty in the world. Those that choose such a perspective possess great riches.”

    Here’s something I’ve paraphrased from Larry Crabb’s “The Silence Of Adam” (a great book). The context is speaking to the heart of issues that men face, but I believe it is a universal call from our Creator to His creation to be creative:

    “Men (artists in our context here) are called to look deeply into mystery, to honestly face the un-resolvable confusion of life. He is (artists are) to remember the character and deeds of God, to see the unseen story of God revealed in Scripture and the events of our lives. And armed with this knowledge he is to move into the chaos of life, with the power to restore and release beauty.”

    No matter our vocation, we bear the image of a Creative Creator. If we have been redeemed by Him, it is with this great ransom we are given the opportunity to “restore and release beauty.” In Christ, we are never poor. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:7 “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace”

    One day we will all feast together at the great kick off meal for an eternal festival. Films such as this remind us to come hungry 🙂

  19. Tony Heringer

    One other thing, Jason mentioned a publication that is here on the web: http://imagejournal.org/page/about/spanning-the-gap-the-image-video

    This is a great group for the Rabbit Room to get behind as it embodies many of the ideals put forth in the posts here.

    This reminds me of an audio journal I used to subscribe to called the Mars Hill Audio Journal. I’d recommend it along with Image: http://www.marshillaudio.org/about/aboutmha.asp

    In fact, I’ve got both on my list of subscriptions for this year. I believe both would be well worth it.

  20. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Tony! You and I have so much in common! I’ve long been a subscriber to Image AND Mars Hill Audio (though I let that subscription expire a while back. Loved it, just had to cut down on some bills and also didn’t have the time to listen as much as I used to.)

  21. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Kerry and Tony – Those are both incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking posts, both of which reinforce the depth and beauty of this great movie. Thanks for being here, fellas.

  22. Tony Heringer

    Curt – This is a fun place my man. You guys provide a great forum here. Thanks for sparking our minds and imaginations.

    Jason – Pretty cool! A pastor turned me on to Mars Hill audio when it first surfaced. Like you, I dropped my subscription for both the reasons you gave (time and money) but now with the MP3 option, the subscription as a whole is cheaper ($30) and you can download individual issues for 6 bucks — way cool!

    I downloaded the recent issue and there is an interview with Eugene Peterson which is excellent. Since there was a post on Eugene here in the room, I hope y’all don’t mind this shameless plug for Mars Hill audio — even though I’ve no affiliation with them 🙂

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *