Babette’s Feast

Released:  1987

Cast:  Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel

Oscar Wins:  Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark)

SUMMARY:  Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) are two elderly sisters who live in a small village in Denmark.  The sisters were raised by their father, a minister who founded his own small sect.  As young women, both sisters had male admirers.  The most notable of them were Lorens Lowenhielm, a Swedish cavalry officer who pursued Martine, and French operatic baritone Achille Papin, who fell for Philippa.  However, both women ultimately decide not to marry, and stay with their father to help in his ministry.  When he dies, they continue leading the small sect (which fails to draw any new converts) by themselves.  Thirty-five years after turning down their suitors, the women find a woman named Babette Hersant (Stephane Audran) standing on their doorstep.  She has a letter from Achille Papin, explaining that she is fleeing the conflict in Paris — which has already killed her husband and child.  Papin recommends Babette as a housekeeper, but the sisters are too poor to pay her.  Babette has nowhere else to go, so she offers to work for free until she can find somewhere else to go.  Fourteen years later, Babette is still working for the sisters.  Her outstanding cooking improves the life of nearly everybody in the village, and she is eventually accepted as one of their own.  One day, she learns that a lottery ticket kept up by a friend in Paris has come through, and she has won 10,000 francs.  This news comes at the same time that the sisters are preparing to host a dinner for the sect, to celebrate their deceased leader’s birthday.  Babette asks to cook the dinner before she leaves.  She also requests permission to cook whatever she likes — a real French dinner.  Reluctantly, the sisters agree.

Babette sends away to Paris for many of the ingredients; their arrival frightens and bewilders the watching townspeople (they include a live sea turtle and a coop full of quails).  The sisters are afraid that Babette will cook something either sinfully delicious or wicked (given the ingredients), both of which will go against the sect’s strict code of conduct.  To ease their minds, the other sect members promise to eat whatever is put in front of them, but not to say anything (good or bad) about it.  Things get even more tense when the sisters learn that Lorens, Martine’s former suitor, is visiting his aunt — who, as an old sect member, has been invited to the dinner.  When the night of the dinner arrives, the guests are presented with numerous courses, complete with a different wine for each one.  Lorens, who was once an attache in Paris, recognizes the luxury and elegance of what they are eating, but he is the only one.  The others, as promised, eat everything placed in front of them without comment.  As the dinner continues, the formerly cranky and spiteful (after years of stern living and togetherness) sect members loosen up and begin to enjoy themselves.  Lorens tells them about a restaurant he once visited in Paris, the Cafe Anglais, which had a female head chef.  This head chef was the best in Paris, and created a special dish — which the dinner party is now enjoying.  The dinner ends with warm feelings among all the members, even Lorens and Martine.  The next day, the sisters thank Babette for preparing such a meal before returning to Paris.  Babette then shocks them by announcing that she isn’t going back to Paris.  The sisters are stunned, but Babette tells them that after fourteen years, there isn’t anybody left there for her.  Furthermore, she spent all the lottery money on the dinner.  She also tells them that she was once the head chef at the Cafe Anglais.  The sisters are horrified that Babette has spent all the money she has in the world, but Babette tells them that artists are never poor.  Philippa tells her that in Heaven, she will truly be a great artist, and will thrill the angels with her gift.

MY TAKE:  On the surface, this doesn’t seem like too interesting a movie:  a group of uber-religious old people who sit down and eat a huge dinner.  It was actually a pretty good movie, with some interesting background to go with it.  First of all, you might notice that it’s based on a short story written by Karen Blixen.  That name rang a bell for me, and it might for you too:  it’s the name of the Meryl Streep character in Out of Africa.  Karen Blixen was a real person who wrote several famous works, among them the autobiographical Africa and Babette’s Feast.  In addition, you might remember the actress who plays Babette — it’s Stephane Audran, who was also in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (which ironically revolves around a dinner party).  She’s half of the couple that are out frolicking in the bushes when the dinner guests arrive.  I felt a little bit of a personal connection to this movie, because it’s Danish.  Karen Blixen was Danish, and this movie was a Danish production; actually, it was the first Danish production of a Blixen story, and the first Danish movie to win Best Foreign Language Film.  Both sides of my family are significantly Danish, and I got to visit Denmark at the age of 12.  I don’t speak Danish, but I could recognize a few words (primarily “thank you”), and the sound of the language was vaguely comforting.  Finally, there’s the movie itself.  It’s not particularly fast-paced, and doesn’t feature outstanding scenery, but there’s something kind of magical about it.  This is especially true of the scenes where Babette is cooking.  It’s wonderful to watch as she lovingly and carefully prepares the dishes, which are obviously not easy to cook.  Granted, there were a couple times when I was a little repelled — mostly when she was prepping those quails — but it probably tasted amazing.  I almost felt like I could taste what the guests were eating.  It was also fun to see how good food could improve the mood and well-being of the guests, although that could have been the wine.  I thought at least one person would surely get sloshed, as they had a different wine with each course (of which there were many).  I don’t think the sect members ever drank, given their very austere way of life, so several glasses of wine and champagne might have pushed some of them over the edge.    There was one lady in particular who, although she couldn’t say anything about it, clearly liked the wine:  when she got water during one course, she scowled at it and went back to the wine from a previous course, licking her lips.  I’m not really sure why Babette decided to go all-out like this — maybe she wanted to thank the sisters for giving her a home for fourteen years?  Whatever the reason, I went away feeling the same contented glow as the dinner guests.

RATING:  Not overtly brilliant, but there’s something special about it.

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