Babette’s Feast is a film about how the needs of the spirit can sometimes be in tune with the needs of the flesh. Set in 19th century Denmark—on the coast of Jutland, to be more precise—the film introduces us to pious sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), the daughters of a Christian pastor who founded a sect and, upon his passing, left the sisters in charge of the congregation. The sect is based on very basic principles that involve the denial of any sort of earthly pleasure and for reasons left unexplained but which are quite obvious, the community is mostly populated with elderly people.
A flashback reveals that the pastor himself made sure his daughters remained spinsters, and we see them as young women being courted by handsome men visiting their small fishing town, Martine by a dashing but misbehaved Swedish officer, Gen. Lorens Löwenhielm, and her sister by a famous singer by the name of Achille Papin, who wants to turn her into an opera singer. Their strict father sends the men away, condemning his daughters to a life they never desired. One day, almost four decades later, the sisters receive a strange visitor; a woman by the name of Babette (Stephane Audran) carrying a letter from Papin, asking the sisters to take her in as their housekeeper.
Babette has just escaped France after her family was killed during the Fourth French Revolution and seeks refuge in this isolated town. After the sisters explain that they can’t afford her, Babette offers to work for free, as long as they don’t send her away. The compassionate women take her in and she lives with them for the next 14 years without any complications. The simple Babette wins the trust of the small community and blends in seamlessly with them, even if they reject anything that resembles novelty.
The years pass uneventfully until one day, Babette announces that she has won the lottery and plans to throw the sisters an authentic French dinner party. She travels to France for the first time since leaving to fetch the exotic ingredients, which cause an uproar in the small town. What can this woman be concocting? The townspeople approach the sisters, afraid that the crates full of wines, precious spices and even live turtles will bring the devil into their peaceful community. They all devise a plan: they will eat Babette’s food without any enjoyment and won’t praise her efforts.
Things go slightly different once they’re sitting at the table in front of the rich foods the generous cook has prepared for them, and as unexpected guests arrive, all of them will reevaluate their position and reexamine the sad history of their town. Directed with utmost precision by Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast plays out like a rich allegory about the slow shift in values that made European societies approach something similar to modern liberalism. Adapted from a story by Karen Blixen (of Out of Africa fame) the film is a melancholy tale powered by lush cinematography and understatedly wonderful performances.
The film was ingeniously shot by Henning Kristiansen, who takes his time in crafting a color palette that sets the mood in such way that dialogues become unnecessary. Most of the film looks grey (there always seems to be an impending threat of fog upon the town) and the characters look pale, almost corpse like, as to reflect their dissatisfaction and repression. Slowly though, color begins to inundate the film (the dishes look sumptuous and burst out of the screen so that we, too, feel compelled to try them) and by the end, the characters have regained some of the glow featured during the initial flashback.
What remains so wonderful about Babette’s Feast is the fact that it doesn’t rely on the supernatural to deliver a tale about the power of spirituality. In recent years the film has been compared to Chocolat because they both explore the sinfulness contained in foods. But where the latter tends to exploit magical properties, the former allows nature take its course without suggesting any sort of divine intervention. Because of its lack of coercive traits, Babette’s Feast turns out to feel even more mystical, because it allows viewers to make up their minds about what was really happening in Jutland.
Babette’s Feast is presented in a two-disc DVD set by The Criterion Collection which, from the packaging to the bonus supplements turns in quite the treat. The new transfer is wonderful, with every frame seeming worthy of pausing and examining. Kristiansen’s cinematography might seem stark and merely efficient, but upon closer observation reveals endless layers that add wonderful details each scene.
Extras include interviews with Axel and Audran as well as an enlightening documentary about writer Blixen. Also included is a visual essay by Michael Almereyda and a fascinating interview with sociologist Priscilla Ferguson about France’s history with food. The set is rounded up with a booklet containing a new essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu and Blixen’s enchanting tale.