Film Club: Babette’s Feast

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.

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16 Responses to Film Club: Babette’s Feast

  1. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    I could watch this movie over and over again. Of course I love the food aspect…any time someone is putting love and care into a delicious meal I get excited! But what I am struck by more than anything is how much that meal represents the Eucharist or communion…that with this special meal, provided with everything Babette has, opens the hearts and minds of these hypocritical people, and nourishes not only their stomachs but their souls.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Sandy – I never made the connection with communion – great insight!

  2. jenn aka the picky girl
    Twitter: picky_girl
    says:

    A really good friend of mine handed me this movie a few years ago and told me I had to watch it. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect because though I will get a foreign film every once in a while, they’re not my favorite. And one from that era? I was not sold. I’m a classic film girl, but I like ‘em black and white.

    And then I watched this. It’s such a simple story. Sacrifice. Bitterness. Hard work. And love – for food, for aesthetics, for kind people. It broke my heart a bit, honestly. The way she blooms when she cooks was truly beautiful to watch.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Jenn – yes, I loved watching the scene where she prepare the food! She did bloom – that’s a perfect way to describe it. :)

  3. jenn aka the picky girl
    Twitter: picky_girl
    says:

    PS – I’m assuming since you’re a film buff you have, but have you watched Cinema Paradiso?

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Jenn – actually, no, I haven’t watched Cinema Paradiso! I take it that it is another must-see?

  4. Bonnie says:

    I saw this in college (in a Film and Literature course) and loved it. Definitely the type of film that sticks with you for a while. I don’t remember the sub-titles being much of a problem, but I also don’t remember there being a huge amount of dialogue in the film.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Bonnie – there was a lot of reading of subtitles, but a TON of it was hymn-singing, with less conversations between characters. Once I got used to the subtitles, I basically forgot I was reading them.

  5. heidenkind says:

    I totally agree with you, Carrie. This movie was so touching and I started crying at the end of the dinner, too. At first I thought it was a little slow-going, but the dinner definitely made up for it. It’s, like, my dream to have a meal like this some day! I think I said “Om nom nom” aloud at least three times during the course of the dinner.

    I also loved the sub-plot with the general and one of the sisters. So sweet! But why couldn’t he have stayed there and married her? ):

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Tasha – I wondered that, too, but then I thought maybe his wife was still alive? And I really wanted to taste every single wine she served them!

  6. Susan says:

    I havent seen the film yet but liked your review; it sounds quietly powerful (the best kind!). I’m a huge Isak Dinesen fan — and love her stories such as this.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Susan – I haven’t read any Isak Dinesen – maybe I should give her a try!

  7. Kate Kane says:

    My boyfriend isn’t a fan of subtitled films, but he sat through this one with me and we both enjoyed it. I thought the movie was going to get deep, but I was pleased that it focused on food and devotion. It wasn’t too serious and my boyfriend didn’t complain once. He said that it’s probably one of the best chick flicks he’s ever watched, and that’s saying a lot!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kate – your comment made me laugh – I’m glad it didn’t bug your boyfriend too much! And that you both enjoyed it. Thanks for watching and joining in on the discussion. :)

  8. Kathleen says:

    I watched this film for a class in college and loved it and didn’t find the sub-titles distracting. It was nice to discuss with the class also.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathleen – I bet this would have been a great film for a class discussion. :)