Babette’s Feast (1987) is based on Karen Blixen’s story by the same name, another one of the Danish author’s books which has been beautifully served by the moving picture. It is the tale of Babette, a Parisian chef (Stéphane Audran) displaced by the 1830s Communard uprising who comes to live in a frugal Christian community on Denmark’s Jutland coast. She works as a maid and cook to two elderly sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), and she also cooks for the elderly in the village, all of whom are unaware of her culinary past. She bends to their ascetic life and diet for years, but when she wins the lottery, instead of returning to France, she takes the opportunity to treat the community to a lavish, multi-course French dinner.
The feast is indeed one of my favourite parts of the entire movie, but not necessarily because of the food. It is especially because of the careful depiction of the passion and craft that go into cooking, into sourcing all the right ingredients, into choosing the perfect wine for every dish. Because of the plot leading up to it which is all the more important for the climax scene as it shows the simple, refrained, self-denial existence the people in the village lead and that food is a mere necessity for them. At dinner they refuse to enjoy themselves vocally, but not because their senses are immune to the pleasures of good food and drink, but rather because of habit. Because of Stéphane Audran, whom I loved in every Claude Chabrol film she played, and in others, too, and who hovers a subtle sensuality over this remote community and over the movie. And because this Danish film tells a fine tale of French cuisine.
But aside from the feast sequence, what I enjoyed probably even more was the sly humour throughout the entire film, the nuanced notion underneath that these people are missing something, and those moments when an elderly from the village is brought lunch. It’s sheer pleasure he expresses when he tastes it and at first you have the impression it’s solely because of hunger. As the plot advances you realise it’s more than that (he becomes clearly upset when he is brought a meal that is not cooked by Babette and he knows it even before eating it, from the consistency of the food). This suggests not exactly a colourless, pleasureless relationship with food, but a much layered perception and appreciation of it.
photo: movie still | Panorama Film, Det Danske Filminstitut, Svensk Film