Two spinster sisters who have chosen the austere life of service to others, cautiously take in Babette as a favor to be their servant. She gladly accepts the terms of no pay, only a place to stay and food to sustain her, for the opportunity to stay far from her previous home in Paris. The sisters teach her to prepare cod soaked in milk and stale bread, which Babette finds disgusting, but never complains. Over time, Babette learns the language of her Danish hosts, and learns to bargain with the locals for food. She helps the sisters serve the small sect of elderly worshippers year after year, until one day, she receives news that she has won the lottery in Paris. With a fortune of 10,000 francs, she can leave the cold, desolate village, but Babette is selfless in her love for the religious sect members. Instead of leaving for the comforts of civilization, she chooses to use her money to prepare a feast for her friends
Babettes Feast has been compared to an early version of Out of Africa, and is noted for it’s Christian themes. Beautifully executed, the storyline and cinematography combine to provide an emotional experience. It begins with Babette’s arrival to the simple home of two devoted sisters who care for their late father’s small flock of rigid worshippers. The colors are dreary, blue, and cold. One can almost feel the desolation of the small fishing village on the coast of Denmark. The wind blows, the windows barely hold back the cold and wind, the dark homes lit by candlelight. The villagers hold their capes and wraps close against the icy weather.
Colors brighten a bit when flashbacks from the sisters’ earlier lives break through. In their earlier days, they were both beautiful and desired by worthy men, however, they choose to stay true to their father’s pastoral work, and never marry. These flashbacks are warm and in stark contrast to the kind of life they now live.
With selfless obedience, Babette faithfully serves the sisters. Behind her eyes, we can see there is an unspoken story, and the mystery of it is intriguing. Some 14 years after arriving at the quaint village, Babette gets a piece of mail from Paris. Each year, her friend has renewed lottery numbers in her behalf, and she has now won 10,000 francs. At this point, we fully expect Babette to take her winnings and leave this forsaken place and go back to warmth and civilization. However, she does something very unexpected. She asks the sisters if she can prepare a meal for them and 10 others. The sisters agree, but soon begin to worry if this will violate their strict code of humble austerity, of complete control over the senses. Now, the audience sees Babette receiving shipments of exotic food, wine, and place settings—and we see the conflict building. How can opulence meet the austere?
Finally, the night of the feast begins. Babette recruits a young man to help her in the small, inadequate kitchen. The colors are now warm and inviting, the food looks delicious. With tremendous skill, she puts together a fine 6-course feast. The wines and food sit on the table surrounded by shocked, confused guests. They decide to eat it, but not enjoy it. However, as the courses are served, they can’t help but be affected by it. For years, they had begun to settle into pettiness and bickering, not finding joy in life. But as the meal progresses, the stiff layers of bitterness melt away one by one.
One guest remembers that he ate a similar meal in Paris many years before. It doesn’t take long for them to realize Babette owned a restaurant in Paris before escaping the political turmoil. Not only is she a cook, but she has spent every bit of her winnings to treat her friends to the meal of a lifetime. With 12 guests, Babette serves each with love and gives all that she has to them. The guests realize how she has given up her training and hidden her talent all these years to conform to their way of life. The irony cannot be denied.
Last thoughts: This film was awarded Best Foreign Film in 1987. Based on a story in the collection by Isak Dinesen, it was adapted beautifully to capture the deep emotions of a time gone by. I don’t watch many foreign films, but this one is completely memorable. Shot with an artist’s eye, and kept simple, it takes us to a secret world that tickles the senses like the feast itself.
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