A sublime tale of denial, sacrifice and regret in a remote corner of Denmark, Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Babette’s Feast confronts the austerity of two elderly Protestant sisters with Babette’s sumptuous and mouth-watering banquet to expose hard truths about faith and its limitations.
How do western audiences at the beginning of the 21st Century, spoilt, overfed and overstimulated as they are, react to a tale of slow austerity and constipated frugality, set in the 19th Century? Babette’s Feast [Babettes Gæstebud] is a masterpiece of sublime meditation on the gulf between the pleasures of the body and the stimulus of the spirit. As the film points at the pertinent ambiguity inherent in such dichotomy, asking intriguing questions in the process, we are served (forgive the pun) a feast of intellectual stimulation.
In 19th Century Denmark, in an isolated and puritanical community in which its inhabitants devote their lives to matters of the spirit, the preacher has two beautiful daughters, who devote their whole existence to good deeds. Although in their youth, both of them had suitors who were willing to take them away from those austere surroundings, they decided to stay put and care for their father. Years later, their father already dead, Babette (Stéphane Audran), a French refugee from the Paris Commune, comes to live with the sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer), and work as a housekeeper. When Babette wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, instead of returning to France and resuming her former life, she decides to spend the money on a banquet for the people of the village.
The members of the congregation show how serious they take their religious observance as they are reluctant to accept Babette’s offer – an attitude that for most of us, children of irreligious times and always ready to please the flesh, seems almost incomprehensible. As they understand that to refuse Babette’s gift would be disrespectful, they decide to eat her food without enjoying it (!) By living modest and austere lives, they hope to attain salvation in the afterlife. We, instead, watch the story in front of us, from the context of the 21st Century, and might suggest that, in godless times like ours, where the idea of eternity makes us cringe, the divine is found in Babette’s feast rather than the villagers’ fast.
..Three Reasons: Babette’s Feast © The Criterion Collection.
In this remote Jutland community, infused with religion to its core, the sisters have denied themselves a chance to make a life of their own, thus perpetuating sacrifice as a lifestyle. This seems the utmost demonstration of valuing life after death. When contrasting that whole existence with a single event, i.e., Babette’s extensive meal, which seems the most blatant affirmation of the here and now, one has the impression that the film is asking us to choose between these two poles. However, these apparently contrasting attitudes towards life are, in fact, different sides of the same coin. Both the sisters’ sacrifices throughout their lives and Babette’s offering to prepare the celebratory dinner for their dead father originate from a desire to give. These are people much in tune with human existence. They rejoice in making others happy.
This does not mean we should not question the sisters’ ‘decision’ to stay single for their whole life and look after their father. Disappointment is clearly engraved into their elderly faces. Their ghostly look into nothingness and the impression that they are daydreaming about what-ifs suggest that regret is part of their frame of mind in old age. When young Filippa (Hanne Stensgaard) sings ‘I tremble, yet I listen; I’m fearful of my joy; Desire, love and doubting; Are battling in my heart’ she sets the tone for every decision they make in the future. A religious guilty complex, subtly instigated by their father, locks their fate into a tragedy of happiness denied.
Then, a single act of great generosity counterpoints their belief system. Paradoxically, the members of the congregation trying (quite unsuccessfully, it must be said!) to not even acknowledge that they are having a delicious meal brings to the surface the uniqueness of the evening. It is their façade that gives the game away. As they try to shift the focus away from the food and towards the weather or the pastor’s good deeds, we realise the importance of that meal to them. More they beg us not to look at it, more we can’t take our eyes off it. Unlike some people nowadays, who insist in fetishize food and wine as if these were holy, their eating is a purer act, requiring no further explanation other than the expression of delight, subtly hidden in their faces.
Dare I say it is almost a transcendent experience – despite (or should I say, because of) the hypocrisy of the pious members of the congregation, who fear earthly pleasures as much as they seem to desire these. The behaviour of the very devout lady, who tells the story of the pastor having to cross the sea under a terrible storm is very amusing indeed. Before giving the punchline to the story, saying that the weather cleared just three days before Christmas, she does not hesitate in turning her glass with fine wine – even seemly stopping it in mid-air to admire its colour, as she let it rest in her palate… A hint of happiness passing through her face.
As the film balances two sides of the divine – colourful delights and exquisite tastes and aromas set against an austere, contemplative and distraction-free life – ambiguity prevails. At the end, we feel as the guests do: well-nourished, both physically and spiritually, and truly satisfied.