Babette’s Feast, a precise and elegant piece, is adapted from Isak Dinesen’s short story by director Gabriel Axel, a fellow Dane who, like Dinesen, found inspiration elsewhere. Axel is uniquely suited to this story of a culinary genius who spends 14 years in Jutland smoking cod. And then one day she stuns the taciturn Jutlanders by preparing a mighty feast.
The story is set in the second half of the 19th century on Denmark’s remote Jutland coast, in a small fishing village whose most notable inhabitants are a fervent Protestant pastor and his two beautiful, pious daughters, Martine and Filippa. Mindful of their responsibilities to their father and his reformist mission, each daughter turns down a beloved suitor. Martine’s is a young officer, Filippa’s a famous French opera star who has been vacationing on the Jutland coast.
After their father’s death, the two young women slip into unmarried middle age, carrying on the pastor’s work with saintly dedication. One night, in the middle of a terrible storm, Babette (Stephane Audran) turns up at their door, battered by weather and circumstances, and carrying a letter of introduction from Filippa’s opera singer, now old and retired. Having lost both her husband and son in the Paris Commune, Babette, he explains, needs political sanctuary. He begs the sisters to take her in. The sisters, who are nearly penniless, accept Babette’s offer to act as their unpaid housekeeper.
In time, Babette becomes an indispensable though ever enigmatic member of the household. Her Roman Catholicism is politely ignored. She brings order and efficiency to the sisters’ lives as defenders of their father’s aging flock, which, over the years, has become split by old grievances and jealousies. Babette cooks, cleans, washes and sews, always remaining aloof and proud, at a distance from her benefactors.
All of this is by way of being the prelude to the film’s extended, funny and moving final sequence, a spectacular feast, the preparation and execution of which reveal Babette’s secret and the nature of her sustaining glory.
It’s not telling too much to report that this glory is Art – in Babette’s case, a very special God-given talent. Babette’s Feast is an affirmation of Art as the force by which, in the words of the old pastor, ”righteousness and bliss,” otherwise known as the spirit and the flesh, shall be reconciled.
French actress Stephane Audran is perfection as the enigmatic Parisian Babette, who flees the Communard uprising in 1871 and is taken in by two sisters, Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), the leaders of a small Danish sect. Her handsome face, her voice like a rich sauce and her strong, healthy stride are set against the prettiness and primness of the older but still angelically beautiful Martina. But like the gifted singer Philippa, Babette possesses a great talent denied.
On one plane, this is a story of waste, a quiet debate on the artist’s right to hoard her God-given talents, to give them freely or simply to sell them and so spend them for adoring crowds. A girl when we meet her, Philippa is discovered by a famous opera singer, Achille (Jean-Philippe Lafont), who is visiting Jutland. With the permission of her father the Vicar, Achille trains her voice, the better to praise God. She later rejects Achille’s underlying plan to make her the greatest diva in the world.
While practicing with him, Philippa surprises herself with her emotional reaction to their romantic duet from “Don Giovanni.” As the song goes, “I am afraid of my own joy.” Likewise her sister rejects a dashing cavalry officer, Lowenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson), to devote herself to her father’s congregation.
Thirty-five years pass, Babette arrives, and the endearing sisters are giving their special talents to their barren world. The sisters may be pious, but they are never cold. Though poor, they take the stranger in; though fasting, they risk the wrath of the Almighty by allowing her the feast. The sisters and the church members agree to eat the food, but not to enjoy or praise it. Only Lowenhielm, who returns a decorated general, tastes the transcendence of the seven-course meal. For the others, it is merely not-cod. And then the miracle occurs, when these stern old puritans are seduced by the baba au rhum and the champagne.
Babette is a maestro. The kitchen is her orchestra, the spoon her baton. Babette has cooked her masterwork, flavoring what once was only craftsmanship with sacrifice and love.
This deceptively modest story, with its quiet colors and contemplative characters, actually teems with contrasts and subtle dynamics. The eternal burn of the artist vies with the cold fire of the puritan’s denial. Serious as it all sounds, Axel and his fine cast interpret Dinesen’s ironic original with great charm and gentle comedy.