I must admit that I had high hopes when the opening scenes of Babette’s Feast began as one of my favourite films and books ( Out of Africa ) is based on the life of Isak Dinesen, the author of the short story on which the film is based. Dinesen, who wrote under the pen name Karen Blixen, lived an unconventional life which included both the plains of Africa and the colder shores of Denmark. However, while watching Babette’s Feast I was struck by how quickly the rhythm of the community was evident, just as it is soon clear in her tales of African life. While this clarity is partly due to Gabriel Axel’s direction it also demonstrates that Dinesen understood that inherently communities share a common humanity wherever they are based.
The film revolves around two elderly sisters and their French maid Babette in a remote town in Jutland, Denmark. All three women are loved throughout the village due to their devotion to the poor and community spirit. However, Babette has not always lived in this small village and the film returns to past events to explain her presence. The two sisters had both been very beautiful in their youth but their father, a preacher, encouraged them to remain above worldly desires and passions. One sister watches as a shy military suitor gives up hope while another gives up her beloved singing lessons to dissuade her teacher from falling in love with her. This asceticism leaves the sisters elderly and alone when Babette arrives at their door and begs them to take her in, having been sent by the spurned music teacher.
Babette is alone and has lost everything due to the French Revolution. After several years of looking after the sisters in Jutland she discovers that she has won the lottery, her only remaining link with France, and is now very rich. She decides to make a real French dinner for the sisters and their friends to thank them for their kindness. The sisters agree and suddenly watch on as their humble kitchen becomes host to exotic ingredients and exquisite china. However, what the viewer finds enchanting and exciting the sisters find terrifying as they increasingly imagine Babette to be cooking temptation itself for them to eat. The guests agreed that although they must eat the food which Babette has made they will refrain from discussing it so that they can demonstrate they remain above worldly delights.
The final scenes around the dinner table focus on each guest’s face as they attempt to not register a single moment of enjoyment. However, not only do faultless dishes keep arriving from the kitchen but Babette ensures that every wine glass remains full. Eventually it becomes clear that despite their best efforts the guests do not remain immune to the effects of Babette’s feast. The dimly lit scenes encourage an intimacy with the group and demonstrate that Babette is not only providing them with a meal but an unrepeatable experience. Although the food is shown, as each course appears including caviar, turtle soup and duck pastries, this is second to the social interaction which takes place – the dinner table makes the guests equal, even with the decorated military general, and differences are forced aside.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this film, in part because I have discovered that it is Pope Francis’ favourite film. I expect that he appreciated the calm meditation on artistic riches set against the Danish coastline as much as I did. It is a film which I have thought about often since watching it and I intend to watch again. However, I would also recommend any of Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) work as it is the slightly ethereal nature of the plot which provides such a simple film with such a fascinating effect.