In 19th century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honored pastor of a small Protestant church that is almost a sect unto itself. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay with their father, to serve him and their church. After some years, a French woman refugee, Babette, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as housekeeper and cook.
I didn’t know what to expect when I watched Babette’s Feast, but I know that it’s been listed on several “must-see movies” lists and I thought it would be a good choice for Film Club. I enjoy watching foreign films, but my husband doesn’t, so this gave me an excuse to watch something that I normally wouldn’t find time for.
This film provoked a hugely emotional reaction in me. The two sisters both sacrificed love and fulfillment to stay in the village and serve their father and his church. He made me so angry! What a selfish man – that he would rather his daughters stay with him than have their own lives and a chance at happiness. If it had been a modern film, the sisters would have had a choice – and I would have been angry at them for staying with him – but during that time period, they couldn’t easily marry without their father’s blessing.
Of course, the old minister dies, leaving the two old maid sisters to carry on his work, tending to the little church. They care for the poor, and attempt to hold the flock together, as the members become older and filled with bitterness and strife. One night, a woman named Babette shows up at their door, seeking refuge. She is fleeing the French Revolution, and the sisters take her in to work as their cook and housekeeper.
Fourteen years go by, and Babette has been a faithful servant to the sisters. Her work has enabled them to spend more time caring for the members of their church. She has learned their language and learned to cook the plain, simple food the sisters eat, as they believe that God requires His followers to deny all pleasures of the flesh, even that of enjoying food and drink.
The sisters are in the midst of planning a dinner party to celebrate their late father’s 100th birthday when Babette receives a letter from France, informing her that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery. The sisters are saddened, knowing that Babette now has the means to return to her home country. But instead of announcing plans to leave, Babette asks them for permission to prepare a true French dinner for the celebration, using her own funds to purchase the ingredients. The sisters are reluctant, but Babette reminds them that she hasn’t asked for anything in fourteen years’ time, and so they agree.
They begin to rethink their decision when Babette returns from purchasing the necessary items for her French dinner. She brings with her exotic ingredients like turtle, live quail, and – gasp! – wine. Fearing for their souls, the sisters instruct their guests and church members to not discuss the food, to simply eat, not allowing themselves to taste it.
As the little group eats, however, they find their senses opening up, their bitterness dropping away, and their love for each other growing. The meal is bountiful, course after course filled with beauty and grace. They discover that Babette had been the renowned chef of the Cafe Anglais in Paris, and that she previously prepared meals like this, meals fit for royalty, every night.
The meal ends, and the sisters thank Babette, who tells them a little of her story. They are expecting this to be their goodbye, but Babette isn’t going back to France. She has nothing left there, and, anyway, has spent every penny on this one night’s feast.
Babette’s Feast is a simple film. There isn’t a lot of dialogue or character development, and yet it is moving and powerful. Babette sacrifices everything she has to show the sisters her gratitude and help them to experience the joy and pleasure of God’s bounty. When I realized that Babette had spent fourteen years fixing the unpalatable fish and ale-bread that the sisters requested, allowing her passion and art to be subsumed in her service to them, I was moved to tears. She felt such pure joy preparing that one meal, even knowing that it would probably be the last time she would be able to work with such fine ingredients. She showed them more about God’s grace and mercy then their father ever did in all his years with them.
So, that’s what I thought. What did you think? Were the subtitles distracting for you? What did you like – or dislike – about Babette’s Feast?
Our next film will be Whip It, with the discussion at Amy’s blog on May 31st.