Saturday, May 28, 2022

Last Stop: Denmark

Babette’s Feast

The remote western coast of Denmark is the final stop in our month-long European Vacation, and we're here for 1987's Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Film, Babette’s Feast. The film was based on a short story by Karen Blixen (better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen). Her memoir of life on a coffee farm in Kenya was the basis of the film Out of Africa, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1985.

(I'm about to tell the whole story of the film. If you've never seen this marvelous movie, stop reading now and put Babette's Feast in whatever queues you have for priority viewing. Then you can come back to this post, or not. Seeing this film is paramount.)  

Babette’s Feast is set in 19th Century Jutland, where two elderly sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), continue to care for their late reverend father’s congregation and the poor and elderly of their village. The sisters never married, and in their youth, their father discouraged local suitors. Martine had been pursued by a handsome cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle), and Philippa by her vocal trainer, the famed opera singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) who had once vacationed in the village. Now, the sisters claim to be content with their simple life.

Unexpected help comes into the sisters’ life in the person of Babette (Stephane Audran). Babette has fled from wartorn France after her husband and son were killed and asks the sisters for work as a chef. They tell her they can’t afford to pay her, but Babette agrees to work for them for just room and board. She tells them she has nowhere else to turn, and they take her in.

Babette provides for the sisters in surprising ways. Not only does her work allow the sisters more free time for ministry, but the French woman also has a shrewd capacity for bargaining with the grocer and the fishmonger, saving the sisters a fortune over years of service. The sisters worry that Babette will someday return to France, but Babette assures her the only link to her home country is the lottery ticket a friend of her regularly purchases.

A less pleasant aspect of the sisters’ life is the progress of their congregation. The parishioners over the years have forgotten their pastor’s lessons of loving and caring for each other and are more often gossiping, quarreling, and backbiting.

One day, that French lottery actually comes through for Babette, awarding her 10,000 francs. Babette asks the sisters if she may prepare a meal for the congregation to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth. The sisters agree, assuming this is Babette's way of giving a gift before she uses her new fortune to return to France.

When the ingredients for Babette’s meal begin to arrive, (a tortoise, quail, fine wine), the sisters begin to worry Babette’s meal will be a sensual, pagan event, perhaps even with a touch of the occult. They warn the congregation not to talk about the food during the meal but instead to discuss spiritual things. Or, at least, the weather.

The sisters then learn they will have a special guest for the dinner: Martine’s lost love, Lorens, who is now a General who hobnobs with the royal court. It is fortunate he is there, for he is the only person at the dinner party who feels free to praise the wondrous meal that Babette serves, though everyone quite obviously enjoys the meal. And the contentious congregation becomes increasingly joyful and kind to each other.

After this wonderful meal, the sisters let Babette know they “know” she is returning to France. Babette tells them she wouldn’t even be able to return to France because she’s broke. The sisters ask about Babette’s lottery money, and she tells them she spent her fortune on the meal they just ate -- it cost the same amount as meals she made as the head chef in Paris’ most acclaimed restaurants. She also tells the sisters it was her great pleasure to fulfill her role as an artist.

It’s a wonderful story and a wonderful film. I’ve always considered it a retelling of the Gospel story of the woman who uses expensive perfume to wash Jesus's feet. The best -- perhaps even the only -- way to express love is through extravagance.

So what Movie Churches rating are we giving this film? The sisters’ father, the Pastor (Pouel Kern), was quite beloved by his congregation and he did seem to share a good message of compassion to his people. But he also had a selfish side -- discouraging his daughters’ suitors so they will continue to assist him in his work. The members of the congregation have a tendency to pettiness. But the sisters are very kind and do much to care for those in need, so we’re giving the church of Babette’s Feast a Three Steeple Rating.

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