Babette’s Feast (1987)

“You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

‘Babette’s Feast’, directed in 1987 by Gabriel Axel, is a Danish comedy drama about a religiously austere Danish village in the 19th century. Two sisters give employment to a French woman as a housekeeper and, after a number of years in service, the woman discovers she has won the lottery. In celebration she cooks an elaborate meal for a group of the villagers that they initially see as sinful but, during the course of the feast they begin to relax and open up. The film is packed with contrasts between the severity of the buttoned-down community and the pressure from outsiders (the French woman, and a singing tutor) to bring a kind of hedonistic lightness to their lives. The movie focuses on the food that Babette prepares, fetishizes the process and the appearance of the feast and draws you in to its sensual pleasures. It seems to me to be almost a parody of the emotional realism of directors like Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer, the comedy coming from how the expectations of the narrative based on the viewers’ preconceptions of Scandinavian cinema are punctured by the shift from austerity to merriment in the scenes of the feast. This twist and the juxtaposition between the dourness of the village and the extravagance of the food is a highlight of the film for me. The food is filmed with care and this is emphasised both by the performance of the villagers in their appreciation and the performance of Stéphane Audran as Babette in her reverence towards the ingredients. Finally, the closing scene in which a surprising revelation is made about the feast completes the narrative perfectly and provides a strong and balanced moral conclusion.

Would I recommend it: Yes! But keep some snacks on standby. Watch with ‘Mid-August Lunch‘ or perhaps in a contrasting double-bill with Bergman’s ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ for another meal, this time less convivial. I’m also preparing to watch Fruit Chan’s 2004 food-based horror movie ‘Dumplings’ – I’ve got a sense that this could be a good contrast as well…

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