To most filmmakers today, a chaste, ascetic lifestyle is bad for your mental and physical health, and puritanism is a form of pious self-denial that guarantees psychological repression. By contrast, the spontaneous enjoyment of earthly pleasures is often held up as the path to emotional and spiritual sanity.
At first glance, Babette's Feast, winner of the 1987 Oscar for best foreign film, seems to embrace these behavioral clichés. Based on a novella by Isak Dineson (Out of Africa), the movie revolves around a sumptuous, sensuous meal prepared by a French cook for a congregation of stern Danish Lutherans. But director Gabriel Axel goes beyond the usual stereotyped understanding of religious zeal, pointing out the positive along with the negative. In the process, he creates a subtle, good-hearted comedy-drama that preaches charity, compassion and love.
The action takes place in the mid-19th century in an isolated seaside village on the Jutland peninsula. As the narrator explains, it is a time when “piety is much in fashion.” The local pastor (Pouel Kern) has two beautiful daughters, Philippa (Hanne Stensgard) and Martina (Vibeke Hastrup), whom he describes as “my right and left hands.” For a mixture of motives, he discourages the two from leaving him and marrying. On the one hand, they are an essential part of his church's mission to the sick and the poor. On the other, he, a widower, selfishly doesn't want to be left alone at home.
Philippa's main suitor is a famous French opera singer, Achille (Jean-Phillipe Lafont), who believes she has the voice of a great diva. “Are you a papist?” her Protestant father suspiciously asks. Even though the answer is affirmative, he gives the singer permission to train her and “make her sing like an angel for the glory of God.”
Despite her respect and affection for Achille, Philippa decides to remain with her father. Her turbulent response while singing Mozart's romantic duet, “I'm Afraid of My Own Joy,” suggests the reasons.
In like manner, Martina rejects a handsome, love-struck cavalry officer, Lorens Lo Wenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson). Although the filmmaker makes clear both women are allowing their talents and emotional lives to atrophy in a way that most people today would find repellent, they're never portrayed as cold or unfeeling. The two sisters’ kindness and devotion to the needy is unwavering.
Thirty-five years pass, the pastor dies, and his daughters continue his works of mercy. After a long silence, Achille writes to Philippa. Contrary to what modern audiences might expect, he tells her that “you have chosen the best part of life” through piety and reminds her that someday her voice “will enchant the angels.” He asks the two sisters to take in a servant: Babette (Stephane Audran), whose husband has been killed during a civil war and whose life is in danger.
The French woman works for them for 14 years. She is a woman of compassion as well as shrewd practicality, and the dour villagers respond to her positively. When she wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery, she decides to spend it all on a seven-course banquet which she will cook in honor of the 100th anniversary of the pastor's birth.
Twelve of his former congregation are invited to the meal. Because Philippa and Martina are afraid that such a display of excess will anger the Lord, they and the rest of the diners agree to eat what's offered but not to praise or enjoy it.
At the same time, Martina's old flame, Lorens, pays a surprise visit after a long absence. Now a distinguished general and man of the world, he arrives in time for the feast, but unlike the others, he isn't sworn to silence. He recognizes the exquisite artistry that has gone into the preparation of each dish and exuberantly proclaims his appreciation.
“This woman, this head chef, had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair,” the narrator comments, “a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetites and spiritual ones.”
Even though Lorens’ worldly wisdom is favorably contrasted with the pious villagers ’provincialism, the film-maker also emphasizes the worth of the path the latter have chosen. Lorens often repeats with great respect the late pastor's religious sayings. “Grace is infinite,” he used to proclaim. The general also admires the pastor's exhortation to a way of life where “mercy and truth, justice and joy embrace.”
The feast changes Babette and the two sisters for the better. We're shown that a truly holy life requires an appreciation that our bodies and our souls are one — and that the pleasures of the senses and the spirit, kept in proper balance, both enrich us. The movie also suggests that a commitment to charity can be catching. If people are treated with love, they may return it in kind to others many times over.
John Prizer currently writes from Paris.