Food has always been a metaphorical ambassador of indulgence. We eat to nourish ourselves. We also eat to pleasure ourselves. It’s no wonder that fasting has long been a symbolic action of purity and sacrifice, for what could be more selfless than the personal depravation of something so physically fulfilling?
Such is the conviction of sisters Philippa (Bodil Jjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), two women living in a quaint, if barren, hamlet in 19th century costal Denmark in the Danish film, “Babette’s Feast”. Their father was the leader of a tiny but strictly pious Christian sect, a position which his daughters resumed after his death. During their salad days, the sisters were the belles of the county, but were unable to pursue youthful desires because of their rigid upbringing. Now, they and their snowy-haired parishioners meet regularly in the sisters’ chilly, grey cottage and eat chilly, grey food. But after many long years of devotion, the crotchetiness that comes with time and boredom begins to set in and the group can be felt pulling apart.
Queue the arrival of a mysterious French refugee named Babette (Stephane Audran) whom the sisters take in as a housekeeper. When Babette wins ten thousand francs in the French lottery, she wishes to repay Philippa and Martine for their kindness by cooking the small congregation a lavish French meal. Unable to refuse Babette’s generosity yet unwilling to take part in such a decadent affair, the religious group opts to eat- but not enjoy- the feast.
And it is in this quiet revelry of sorts that the feasters begin to question the virtue of self-depravation. It is because of devout selflessness that the sisters once betrayed their chance at love, a decision that appeared to be healthy for their spirituality and bitter for their humanity. But somewhere between the buckwheat cakes with caviar and the velvety turtle soup do they find that the greatest revival of spirituality can only be achieved by embracing our humanity and sharing the pleasures of life with others; for tucked within the simple joy of a meal is a universe of gratification that transcends body and soul. Just what the doctor ordered for the austere worshipers.
It is an exquisite little story that melts slowly away like the layers of a buttery croissant to reveal a meeting of spirituality and mortality. The feast its self takes up a deliciously significant portion of the movie and is executed with very little dialogue; yet, as if by magic, we can see the straight-laced gathering begin to soften, the colors on screen become more vibrant, we can almost taste the wine and smell the quail for this is the feast to end all feasts. This is the transmission of delight from human to human, from food to eater, from movie to audience.
“Babette’s Feast” is an utterly fulfilling banquet of a film. Witty, delicate, and charming, it gratifies in the same way that the feast does. Like a secret ingredient that pulls a dish together, the discretion and grace of “Babette’s Feast” leave you with a warm aftertaste. It is by all means a feel-good movie but then again, that’s the point.
*For all you die-hard "Babette's Feast" fans out there, I apologize for the murky picture quality and feel that I must clarify; "Babette" is spelled with only one "B".