Babette’s Feast

February 16, 2012

When Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for best foreign language film Monday, it seemed to surprise almost everybody, particularly presenter Faye Dunaway, who announced the winner with some shock. (The heavy favorite had been Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, les enfants.) But it wasn’t much of a surprise to careful watchers of that quirky category.

Because the voters in that category must actually see all the nominees before they vote, the film with the biggest reputation doesn’t always win (unlike, say, the best picture category). And Babette’s Feast, the first winner from Denmark, is such a wonderful movie that the upset win doesn’t seem like such an upset at all.

Babette’s Feast is based on an Isak Dinesen short story. I haven’t read that particular story, but the film beautifully captures Dinesen’s characteristic irony, melancholy, and sense of art-in-life.

The main characters are two lovely elderly sisters (Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer) living in a small fishing village on the lonely coast of Jutland, toward the end of the 19th century. In the first part of the film, we see flashbacks to their early lives, when each had a male visitor who disturbed the barren existence of the place. Each man departed after an exquisite and platonic friendship, the memory of which lasts vividly for all involved.

Many years later, one of the men is responsible for sending Babette (played by the incomparable French actress Stéphane Audran) to the sisters. Babette has lost everything in the political upheaval in France. Now she requires a place to stay, a haven in which she can pass the rest of her years in peace. In exchange, she will cook.

When, some years later, Babette wins a lottery prize and promises to mount a French feast for the spartan sisters and their church group, it launches the movie into its extraordinary final sequence, in which, to put it mildly, dinner is served.

Babette’s culinary opus turns out to be a dazzling aesthetic creation, a monumental cavalcade of turtle soup, quail, champagne, caviar, sherry, cheeses, fruit, cognac. Just before it unfolds, one of the long-ago suitors returns, now an old lion of a general (Jarl Kulle). He delivers a rapturous appreciation of the meal, which is matched by the satisfied grunts of the rumpled peasant who helps Babette in the kitchen.

No synopsis can convey the glow that emanates from this movie. Director-screenwriter Gabriel Axel gets all the richness out of the romantic memories that these characters have kept with them, and he presents the stupendous feast with all the choreographed care of a fantastically complicated, three-act (ten-course) ballet.

Which is exactly the approach Babette brings to it. When the sisters worry that Babette has spent all her lottery winnings on the feast, Babette insists, “An artist is never poor.” She’s right: If art is that which brings some measure of grace and beauty into the world, then Babette’s feast is a work of art—not just for the diners in the movie, but for the movie audience as well.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

There must be people who don’t like this movie. Give such people a wide berth. It’s a little too easy to describe it as a foodie film, and revival houses love selling the movie along with a similar meal. But it’s not about food, it’s about art, and that’s why it’s a classic.