A film by Gabriel Axel
Denmark, 102 min. 1987, Color
It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and of course, one expects special holiday essays about heartwarming moments and time spent with family, but what this weekend is all about is eating, pure and simple. If one is not into football and visiting with family members, the thing to do when not eating is to watch films about eating. And that brings me the long way around the barn to Babette’s Feast.
Twenty-three years ago, Danish director Gabriel Axel made a special movie based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. (A little secret: Isak Dinesen was actually a woman named Karen Blixen.) The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987. The cast is made up of relatively unknown French, Danish, and Swedish actors, and features the starkly beautiful coast of Jutland with its wind-swept beaches and harsh climate. Axel makes us feel the cold and biting wind, but he also rewards us with a feast of sensual extravagance.
The plot focuses on two spinster sisters living out their lives in a small town on the Danish coast. They lead a congregation of aging Christians founded by their father. Their days are spent in prayer and worship, but that is not what their lives were always like. We flashback to the sisters as young, beautiful women courted by handsome and debonair outsiders who come to visit the small enclave. Martine is pursued by a young army officer, Lorens, who has a gambling problem that makes him an unsuitable suitor; Philippa’s beau is a burned out opera singer, Achille Papin. Lorens comes to town to visit his aunt while Papin seeks solace and rejuvenation. The burgeoning romances come to naught when Lorens quickly realizes his gambling and immaturity limit his chances with Martine. He is forced to leave town. Achille Papin makes the wrong move during a singing lesson with Philippa, leading to his expulsion.
Years later, a strange and mysterious woman arrives at the sisters’ home, bearing a letter of introduction from Achille Papin. The sisters have mercy on her and take her into their home where she becomes their cook. Babette performs admirably, making the bland, unappetizing dishes the sisters and their congregation have come to rely upon for sustenance. However, actress Stephane Audran does an excellent job of conveying the passions running beneath Babette’s stoic exterior.
Babette discovers she has won the lottery in France, and is to receive 10,000 francs. This coincides with the sisters’ celebration of their deceased father’s one hundredth birthday. Babette convinces Martine and Philippa to allow her to cook a real French dinner for the congregation, and then the fun begins.
We see every preparation for the meal, from the raw ingredients to the table settings to the wines and dessert. Babette cooks like a fiend in the kitchen. I am not sure I would partake of every course of the cuisine, but Axel brings it on in healthy servings of sensuous delight: turtle soup; quail set on a puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce; caviar and sour cream on a buckwheat pancake; salad, cheeses, fruits; and finally, rum cake with candied fruit. The surprised congregants also imbibe a variety of wines during the meal. The entire preparation process as well as the meal itself is a treat for the eyes. It is worth the two hours of watching just for the food. The story is a good one as well, with a surprise at the end that makes the whole feast both sad and glorious. Babette is an artist, and she assures the stunned sisters that, “An artist is never poor.”
So, if the end of the Thanksgiving feast finds you prostrate on the couch waiting for the Alka Seltzer to go to work, football might be the safe alternative because watching Babette’s Feast is like eating another meal. It might be best to watch this in the hours leading up to dinner or wait a few days after the big meal to rev up your appetite again.
On this long weekend we must all give thanks for whatever comforts we have and celebrate a holiday only Americans could invent: a day devoted to stuffing our faces. What a concept!