by Josephine Grahl
Based on a short story by Danish author Karen Blixen (who also wrote as Isak Dinesen), Babette’s Feast (1987) tells the story of two sisters, Martine (played by Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) who live in a remote fishing village on the western coast of Denmark. Daughters of a Christian pastor who leads his own sect based on self-denial and austerity, after his death they preside over his dwindling flock, doing good works and living a simple, austere life.
The film then flashes back to the early 19th century when Martine and Philippa were young. Under the dour influence of their father, both women are moved to turn down suitors – Martine a dashing soldier, and Philippa a famous French baritone who offers her a life of glamour and stardom. One imagines that the film may be about to turn into an elegy for the missed chances of two frustrated spinsters, but to its credit this is handled more subtly: when the film jumps again to the 1870s, both Martine and Philippa are shown to be living simple but contented lives without any regrets over what might-have-been.
Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Babette (Stéphane Audran), a political refugee from the terrible repression of the Paris Commune, in which her husband and son have been killed. She becomes the sisters’ unpaid housekeeper and gradually begins to soften the edges of their desolate lifestyle: the unseasoned evening porridge is replaced by soup, and she tries to add small touches of ease and kindness to their lives. Stéphane Audran’s performance is restrained and intriguing, fitting for a character who stays a partial mystery even as she lives among the villagers for decades.
Some years later, Babette wins 10,000 francs in the Parisian lottery. For the first time, she asks something of Martine and Philippa: she would like to cook a great feast for the villagers. Dubious about the moral influence of luxurious food and drink, the sisters reluctantly agree. To their dismay, Babette begins to order previously unheard-of extravagances from Paris: a turtle, quails, a calf’s head, and rare wines and champagne. The villagers agree that although they will attend the meal and eat Babette’s food, they will avoid being corrupted by pleasure by refusing to say a single word about the meal.
The banquet itself is the emotional and spiritual climax of the film, built up to by a long sequence of, essentially, food porn: Babette preparing dish after dish, seasoning, spicing and tasting. This is cooking as a kind of art, cooking as a spiritual experience, as a celebration of all the possibilities of life. It’s also cooking as a kind of creation, in the religious sense: Babette is bringing forth pleasure and excitement, presenting a glorious complexity where previously there was only stark severity. As the villagers eat they are warmed and elevated, brought to recognise that material pleasures can also lift them spiritually. This is emphasised by the obvious echoes of Christian symbolism: twelve people sit down to eat Babette’s Last Supper – quite literally last, as she spends her entire windfall on the meal.
Babette’s feast is a gentle, seductive experience: the slow-paced, almost sleepy narrative and restricted colour palette, which gradually becomes more and more suffused with rich colour, ease the viewer very gently into the experience, as does the gentle Danish narration by Ghita Nørby. The glowing, jewel-toned lushness of the cooking and feast scenes makes a wonderfully warm contrast with the stark Jutland landscapes, all whipping wind and spray, and meagre cottages perched on stone outcrops: as, slowly, more and more colour comes into the film as Babette prepares each dish, you can almost physically feel the sense of well-being which settles over the characters. The way the cooking and meal are filmed reminds one of Renaissance painting – deep colours and a sense of symmetry and balance, with deep contrasts of light and shade.
It’s a wonderful film for this time of year, with its gorgeous juxtapositions of stark natural desolation and the rich hedonism of a delicious meal: perfect for December.
Babette’s Feast is released on 14 December 2012 at the BFI Southbank, Curzon Mayfair, ICA plus selected cinemas nationwide