Babette’s Feast is a feast in itself, for the heart, the senses, and above all the spirit.
At the same time, unlike many food-themed films (cf. Like Water for Chocolate; Tortilla Soup), it isn’t a voluptuous or sensual affair. It’s sensitive, funny, hopeful, and ultimately joyous; but there’s a restrained, almost ascetical quality to it, especially in the first half. Even in the climactic feast, there is no collapse into epicurean dissolution or "food pornography." Elevation, not mere gratification, is the goal of Babette’s Feast.
Behind the film’s deceptively simple story is a sort of parable or fable of religion and life. A voice-over narrator introduces us to a pair of aging sisters, daughters of a now-deceased Protestant minister on the Jutland coast of Denmark, whose names are Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) — "after Martin Luther and his friend, Philip Melanchthon."
These pious sisters lead quiet lives of touching service among their late father’s remaining followers, a handful of older residents of a tiny nineteenth-century coastal settlement that is at once almost a religious community and a sect unto itself.
In their youth, we learn, both Martina and Philippa were once courted with opportunities for love and/or fame that would have taken them away from their father and his work. These offers, much to the grief of heartbroken suitors, were turned down.
But no: There was no real turning down, for there was never any question of accepting. The possibility of saying yes to any suitor, of leaving their father’s work, was never a live option for either woman.
In flashback we see the sisters in the flower of youth, living with their father (Pouel Kern). Young Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) is lovely, but so inaccessible that a worldly young cavalry officer (Gudmar Wivesson) who falls for her comes to realize, without her saying a word, that she is not to be had.
As for young Philippa (Hanne Stensgaard), she has the voice of a great diva; she accepts vocal training (the better to glorify God in song) from a famed opera singer named Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont). But there comes in her training a moment, during a beautifully rendered duet from Don Giovanni, when the lyrics take on personal relevance: Papin sings Don Giovanni’s invitation to Zerlina ("Come, then, with me, my beauty… I’ll make you a great lady"), but she replies in Zerlina’s words: "I tremble, yet I listen / I’m fearful of my joy / Desire, love, and doubting / Are battling in my heart." At the end of the piece, Zerlina yields; but Philippa, "fearful of her joy," cannot, and sends Papin away (or rather, sends her father to do so).
In a way, Martina and Philippa live like Catholic nuns, consecrated to virginity and religious life. And yet how unlike: for consecrated religious, like those who marry, must make a decision to leave father and mother and take vows to embrace their new life. They are called upon to forswear the goods of marriage and family, to sacrifice lives of domestic joy and service for another joy and another service. But for the sacrifice to be true, they must first recognize as a true good that which they give up, just as the Israelites of old sacrificed only the best of their flocks and firstfruits of their harvests, not the defective or withered.
Those who turn their backs on marriage and family, fame and fortune, or indeed any earthly happiness, without appreciating earthly happiness for what it is, have not sacrificed at all. Nor is it only the daughters. The congregation sings a hymn that begins "Jerusalem, my heart’s true home" — meaning of course new Jerusalem, the heavenly city. They long for eternal joy, but flee earthly satisfactions.
Yet the congregation may be losing sight even of eternal joy as well as earthly satisfactions. Since the minister’s death, old quarrels and fears have begun resurfacing. The comforting old hymns fail to bring the old sense of unity, and even the sisters’ best efforts no longer seem appreciated.
These hairline schisms, left to run their course, must ultimately either destroy the community, or else cause one or more factions within it to break away in an attempt to recover or preserve the original purity and fervor in which the group was born. It’s a process that’s been played out before: Martina and Philippa’s father left the church of his own youth to found a new sect dedicated (as his daughters’ names suggest) to recovering Reformation principles. Likewise, the Reformation itself was at least partly an effort to recover what the Reformers believed was the lost purity of the apostolic age.
The wheat field, newly sown, is pure and fresh, but soon enough tares grow up amid the wheat. Young movements and communities often have a bracing sense of promise and purity that in time almost inexorably suffers apathy, lethargy, special interests, abuses.
Of course the wheat continues to grow as well; apathy and abuses there may be, but also new opportunities for virtue and heroism, a maturing of purpose and commitment, and a fuller flowering of glory. But the impulse to get rid of the tares at all costs inevitably leads to tearing everything up and starting anew — after which of course the tares grow anew, and schism follows schism.
While he lived, Martina and Philippa’s charismatic father was able to hold the flock together. His personality was at the center of their communal religious life, which, being non-liturgical and non-sacramental, was centered on preaching, and therefore on the pastor. The cult of personality is a powerful social force, but only as long as the personality remains.
What is ultimately lacking in this Jutlander community is grace. Their religion has become abstract and remote, a set of brittle orthodoxies rather than a lived faith. A woman worries a man with doubts about whether God will forgive them a sin of their youth; he knows the right theological answer to the question, but there’s no abiding sense of God’s peace, or even of his love.
Into this community comes an unexpected figure: Babette (Stéphane Audran), a refugee from 1871 revolutionary violence in Paris. She bears a letter to the sisters from Papin, asking them to take her in. Babette, knowing only Papin’s high regard for these women, begs to be allowed to serve them, asking only room and board; and the kind-hearted sisters cannot turn her away in her need.
Martina and Philippa hardly think, of course, that they themselves or their community might be as needy as Babette herself, or that she might supply what they lack. After all, she is French, presumably Catholic ("Papist," as the sisters’ father called Papin); scarcely better than a heathen. What can she have that they might need?
What indeed. The pious sisters live to serve; but they are wholly unacquainted with being served, which can be as humbling as, or more so than, service itself. They have no idea what depths of self-abnegation they unwittingly impose upon Babette with the simple words "Let it soak." Nor are they aware of all that she has to give.
After many years of service, a day finally comes when Babette is in a position to show them. She wants to prepare a feast for the tiny community, on the occasion of the late minister’s birthday. Martina and Philippa initially consent to Babette’s plans… but consent turns to alarm as they begin to grasp the scope of her plans (a boatload of supplies carries some rude shocks).
What manner of debauchery is she leading them all into? Movies haven’t been invented yet — and these Jutlanders aren’t the type who would have gone to see them even if they had been — so none of them are quite sure what goes on in stories such as Like Water for Chocolate or Tortilla Soup: but even so, they’ve got a bad feeling about it. Like Philippa singing with Papin, they are fearful of too much joy.
Why does their religion make them so suspicious of Babette’s elaborate preparations, her exquisite delicacies? Why do they feel that bread-mush and boiled cod is spiritually preferable to Blini Demidoff or Cailles en Sarcophage?
To ask this is to raise larger questions about Protestantism: why the Reformers stripped their churches of kneelers and statues, their leaders of vestments and censers, their worship of liturgy and sacrament — why they feel their faith is better expressed by bare churches, pastors in three-piece suits, and sermon-dominated meetings.
Protestantism has often been associated with an emphasis on the spiritual over against the physical in a way that sometimes borders on the Gnostic or Manichaean. Catholic tradition, by contrast, is profoundly incarnational, emphasizing the unity of the spiritual and the physical. We are embodied souls by nature, and our redemption is a matter of both flesh and spirit: The Word becomes flesh; we are born again of water and the Spirit; we are justified by faith working in love.
Babette, while not an apostle of Catholic faith to these Protestants (as was Francis de Sales to the Calvinists of Chablis), is nevertheless an ambassador of incarnationalism, even of grace itself. Her feast is both a meal and also (in a way the sisters cannot guess) a sacrifice; and, like a sacrament, it has an efficacious effect. Martina, Philippa and the others come to the table determined not to be undermined in their staunch plainness, but the meal works subtly upon them in unexpected ways. Some reminisce about their absent master, making the feast a true memorial meal. But one fortuitous guest who is unaware of Babette’s presence among the villagers perceives the meal, and the hand behind it, for what it is, just as the disciples on the Emmaus road came to recognize the Lord in the breaking of bread.
In the end, Babette’s Feast is a quiet celebration of the divine grace that meets us at every turn, and even redeems our ways not taken, our sacrifices and losses. Whatever we think has been given up or lost, God gives back in greater abundance, one way or another. It may not be till heaven that we truly become all that he intends; but his grace is here and now, whatever our circumstances, and with him all things are possible.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.