ARTISTIC, SENSUAL AND SACRED PASSIONS UNITE IN “BABETTE’S FEAST”.
The Café Anglais in Paris was a famous institution for the wealthy throughout the 19th century that reached its peak under the guidance of chef Adolphe Dugléré. In 1867, he created the Three Emperors Dinner for a feast attended by Tsar Alexander II, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck. Requested by Wilhelm as a meal where no expenses should be spared, it featured 16 courses and eight wines, served over eight hours.
The menu is still a wonder to behold, complete with wines that ranked among the most precious at the time. In 2002, an Australian chef attempted to recreate the menu, obviously updating the wine list. The price tag per person: $7,500. The Kaiser got what he asked for. Watching Babette’s Feast makes you hungry like few other movies.
Courted by men in their youth
The story takes place in a small village in Jutland, Denmark in the 19th century. We are introduced to two sisters, Martine and Philippa, whose father was a stern preacher who founded a religious assembly. His charisma dominated the people in the community. When the sisters were young they were courted by men who fell for their beauty, but their father rejected any attempt to marry his girls. In spite of interesting suitors, the sisters decided to remain with their father and the cult.
Many years later, after the bloody 1870-1871 insurrection in Paris, a stranger arrives in the community. Her name is Babette and she had been told to look up the sisters in Denmark and offer her services as a housekeeper. When the sisters tell Babette that they have no money, she offers to work for them for free. 14 years later, Babette is informed that she’s won the lottery in Paris, but what will she do with the money?
A community that looks inwards
This is reportedly Pope Francis’s favorite movie and it’s been noted by the Vatican as a ”great film”. It makes me happy, because Babette’s Feast is not only an intelligent tale that treats religion in a serious manner, but it also rejects the most poisonous aspects of conservative doctrine. The rural cult is depicted as a gathering of people who only look inwards, who are afraid to take part in or learn from life outside the community. After spending decades together, doing nothing but praying and singing together, these people have run out of fresh air and begun to view each other with suspicion, blowing minor controversies out of proportion. The sisters remain level-headed, fearing for the future of their community. Perhaps this is an important reason why they let Babette do something highly controversial: arrange a feast based on French cooking. After a lifetime of only drinking water and eating bland food, the menu will be a shock to everyone in the village.
On paper, the film probably looks like many others that have become Oscar bait over the years (this became Denmark’s first win in the Foreign Language category), but Babette’s Feast truly stands out. Partly because of how the filmmakers, including cinematographer Henning Kristiansen, stage the stark beauty of the Danish community, often relying on the expressive faces of the congregation, but also partly because of its moving message, preaching gratitude and generosity. Perhaps it isn’t God’s wish to live one’s life in denial of earthly pleasures?
The feast is presented in mouth-watering fashion, allowing us in the audience as well as the dinner guests to enjoy the experience. Apart from all the delicious courses and wines, the highlight is watching Jarl Kulle at the table as the officer who’s seen the world and immediately realizes the magnitude of this treat. He leads a fine cast in a film that’s a balm for the senses.
Babette’s Feast 1987-Denmark. 102 min. Color. Produced by Bo Christensen, Just Betzer, Benni Korzen, Pernille Siesbye. Written and directed by Gabriel Axel. Short Story: Isak Dinesen. Cinematography: Henning Kristiansen. Cast: Stéphane Audran (Babette Hersant), Bodil Kjer (Philippa), Birgitte Federspiel (Martine), Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Vibeke Hastrup… Bibi Andersson. Narrated by Ghita Nørby.
Trivia: Original title: Babettes gaestebud.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. BAFTA: Best Film not in the English Language.