27 April 2013

My favourite film ever - Babette's Feast.

I was reading a discussion about the best film that a reviewer had seen and fully expected him to select Gone with the Wind (USA 1939) Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Casablanca (USA 1942), The Third Man (UK 1949), Lawrence of Arabia (UK 1962) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (New Zealand/UK 2001–2003).

I would have voted for Babette’s Feast (Denmark 1987) and was delighted to see it was one of the three winners. I was also surprised, mainly because a] Denmark seems somewhat remote for most cinema fans and b] the film displays no violence, no teenage angst, no nakedness and no chase scene.

Written and directed by Gabriel Axel, this drama was based on the story by Isak Dinesen /Karen Blixen and starred Stéphane Audran. It was the first Danish film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The story was simple. In 19th century rural Denmark, two aged spinsters lived in a village with their father, who was the minister of a rather pious Protestant church. Out of the blue a French woman refugee arrived at their secluded front door, fleeing counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris. The two sisters allowed Babette to stay and she repaid their kind­ness by working for them as their house keeper. Her only link to her former life was a lottery ticket that someone in Paris renewed for her every year.

Babette's Feast.
Dark austere clothes, grey austere hair, dark 19th century room.
But examine the concentration and the opportunity for pleasure.


One day Babette won the top lottery prize of 10,000 francs. Apparently she had been a professional chef in her earlier life, and when the sisters decided to put on a dinner to mark the 100th anniversary of their late father’s birth, Babette asked to do the cooking. She was clearly prepared to spend all of her winnings locally, instead of using it to return to Paris and to her previous life. I am sure that the good sisters secretly feared what a Frenchwoman and Catholic might do in their kitchen, nonetheless they invited the entire village to the dinner. Babette then prepared the finest French feast ever eaten in all of Denmark’s history.

With such a slim story line, character and photography became the most important elements of the film. I really loved the second half of the film that focused on the preparation, serving and consumption of Babette's rich feast. The richness of the food was in sharp contrast to the austere house and the even more austere vil­lagers. Would the pious, elderly church congregants comment harshly on the earthly pleasures of their meal and thus ruin the evening? 

Babette's work in the kitchen was a labour of love.
The cooking and eating scenes had modern foodies drooling in the cinema.

Slowly slowly Babette's very special personality, and her ability as a chef, helped them let go of their innate distrust, allowing some pleasure to seep into their souls. Her soul, and her food, actively seduced the villagers into letting go of their inhibitions!! One blogger summarised it beautifully. Babette’s act of self-sacrifice caused old wrongs to be forgotten, ancient loves to be rekindled and a mystical redemption of the human spirit to settle over the table.


22 comments:

Merisi said...

Thank you for writing about one of the finest and one of my favorite films! I have watched it several times, and will watch it again.

Have you watched Aki Kaurismäki's "Man without a Past"? Splendid cinematography and beautiful story.

Greetings from Vienna,
Merisi

the foto fanatic said...

As a keen photographer I really enjoyed the way this film was shot.
The food photography was exceptional.

Hels said...

Merisi

I have not seen many Finnish films in my years going to the cinema, so I would definitely remember Man Without A Past. So thanks for that... i will scout around and find it.

Some film reviewers have horrible taste, in my opinion. But if you thought Babette's Feast was a very fine film, your recommendations on other films can be trusted :)

Hels said...

Foto fanatic,

*nod* The photography was, I would argue, the most important part of the film. The action was limited, the dialogue was quiet and the story line was not tackling the great issues of the day. But the photography was rich, detailed and sublime.... often times without adequate lighting.

Deb said...

One blogger, Renew Theaters, went to the trouble of getting an exact list of the dishes served up by Babette in the film, and organised a replication of the dinner in their own town - including turtle soup; buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream; quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce; salad with Belgian chicory and walnuts in a vinaigrette; blue cheese, papaya, figs and pomegranate; and rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits.

Hels said...

Deb,

YES!! The food was presented as if each item was a treasure.

This appealed not only to the foodies but also to lovers of 17th century Dutch art. Compare the photo of Babette in the kitchen to Vermeer's painting The Milk Maid, c1659, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
http://www.students.sbc.edu/mclemore10/The%20Milkmaid.html

Andrew said...

It is not my top film, but very high on my list. I was quite uninterested in food until I saw the movie.

Hels said...

Andrew

I am not a foodie either... food is what you prepare for family, noting its nutritious value and taste. Not as a treasure in its own right. So that was the first surprise.

The second surprise was that people ALWAYS give Casablanca, The Third Man or something epic as their best film. Not a tiny little film like Babette's Feast.

John Tyrrell said...

Interesting choice, and a great film.

I loved the portrayal of the local puritanical community, a very Scandinavian feel to it, a world in which food, and celebration play little part, and alcohol is taken secretly if at all. Far removed from the cosmopolitan world from which Babette had fled. It reminded me a little of my own nonconformist youth!

Talking of films, I don't think I could chose a single favourite film. This would be up there in my top half dozen, as I think would an Australian film, "Man of Flowers", although I haven't seen it for over 20 years, and might not like it as much as I did then.

Hels said...

John,

Quite right. The entire story only made sense and had impact BECAUSE of the community's puritanical beliefs and practices. And you are right to contrast this inhibited lifestyle and cold weather with Babette's cosmopolitan world. I cannot imagine two more contrasting worlds!

I've asked my beloved to find Man of Flowers. Thanks for the recommendation.

nothingprofound said...

A beautifully realized film. To me, the point of the movie was the color and beauty an artist can bring into an otherwise dull and drab existence. "Babette's Feast" is a feast of art as well as food.

Hels said...

nothingprofound

I am delighted you know and love the film. There is always the very real possibility in blogging that noone will recognise what the blogger is talking about.

umashankar said...

You post about your favourite movie matches the pace and mood of its admiration. You have begun slowly, setting up the 19th century rural Danish village, frugal, ascetic and Protestant; introduced the protagonist who quietly unleashes her lavish spirit, changing the folks for good.

I will check out for Babette’s Feast.

jeronimus said...

Scandinavians are so 'over' religion after all that puritanism. Statistically, they are now the least religious, and, interestingly, the most charitable states in the world.

Hels said...

Umashankar

Thanks for commenting.

I agree with you totally, except for the "unleashes her lavish spirit". Babette was quiet, reflective and soulful. The change in the villagers was very cautious...almost imperceptible.

Hels said...

jeronimus

Since the village was entirely elderly, we have to assume two things: a) Puritanism was of limited appeal to new recruits. And b) these people might not have had (enough) babies of their own.

It couldn't last, as you noted.

John Tyrrell said...

I think puritanism/asceticism has had a rather deeper impact on Scandinavia than people realise - is there anywhere else in the developed world where you can't buy a bottle of wine at the supermarket?

Incidentally it is surprising how little known is the author, Karen Blixen, a Dane who wrote in English, and whose 1937 memoir inspired an even more successful film, Out of Africa,

cheers

John

Charlene Lyon said...

Thank you for the memories! I love this film.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It has been many years since I saw this film, but I recall its charm. Babette relies on her inner resources and traditions to provide for others in the way that she is uniquely fitted, and this revelation is more important than the actual food. I'll have to watch this again, as I now sense several levels of allegory to watch out for.


Hels said...

John

I am glad you raised Karen Blixen's authorship. With the book and film Out of Africa, she was indeed firmly identified and made famous as the author.

With Babette's Feast, I wonder why I didn't read the book before seeing the film (my normal practice) and I wonder why Blixen's name was only quietly attached to the film back in 1987.

I assumed she wrote in English in the first instance because her second husband couldn't speak Danish and because she lived in British Kenya for such a long time. Is this not so?

Hels said...

Charlene

it was a bit risky writing a post about my favourite film, or book for that matter. Favourites are so personal and it was difficult to be impartial.

Glad you enjoyed the memories :)

Hels said...

Parnassus

that is so true. 1987 is 25 years ago and we have all seen a lot of films in the last 25 years. So who remembers the details of any one old film? and who can compare one old film with hundreds of other old films?

Thankfully I kept halfway decent notes at the time!