Babette’s Feast

BabetteA year ago I received Babette’s Feastfrom . Yesterday morning, a full ironing basket beckoned. I was in an unhurried mood one needs to watch Babette. After all the shirts were pressed I grabbed some tea and just soaked it in.

A great movie rewards each new viewing. Like many foreign films, the story is acted with subtlety rather than told point-blank in the dialog. But one shouldn’t be fooled by the slow pace. There is humor tucked into pockets of every scene. And irony—rich irony—becomes more evident, and more enjoyable, each time I’ve watched.

Babette’s Feast delivers a blow to gnostic pietism: the belief that worship is divorced from the way we dress, chop wood, sing, balance accounts, do laundry, have sex, eat and drink.The small Jutland community despises the physical—read: body—; only the “spiritual” is valued.

The two sisters, Martina and Philippa, have a heart for good works, but the disgusting bread ale fish stew they bring to shut-ins is a symbol of the impoverished culture in which they live. Their French servant Babette fixes a feast in which every sense is heightened. Her preparations are the pinnacle of the film: simmering soup, sauces, pastries, wine, chocolate. But she also pays close attention of the table setting, the presentation of the food, the order in which it is served.

I had no sympathy for the “dear Pastor” whose control of his daughters excluded the possibility of their getting married. His mocking laughter—I had not noticed it before— as he delivers a “dear John” letter from his daughter exposes him for the shriveled soul that he is.

I’m quite sure now that I didn’t “get” this movie the first time. The extravagance of one fine meal defies logic. As I grow, my appreciation deepens. I see layers upon layers, deeper meanings.

And the juxtapositions! In their paranoia the dinner guests agree to not mention the food. “It will be just as if we never had a sense of taste.” That was a laugh out loud moment! So they sit, silent and suspicious, while the general can’t stop talking about the exquisite dishes he is eating.

The general’s driver sits in the kitchen, watching and eating the same feast in a warm corner. Unlike the general, for whom the food recalls a Paris restaurant in his past, the driver has never before tasted French cuisine. He resides in the background of the movie, but his bright nose and twinkling eyes, his one word benediction: “Good!” is a fitting contrast to the others’ silence.

One distraction: the movie is Danish with English overdubbed. The chasm between the dubbing and the subtitles was hilarious!

I am eager to read Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s) short story that is the basis of the film. After a long search, I found a pdf copy of it. It has been twenty-five years since this movie was made. I would love to see a talented filmmaker remake this one.


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