Reflections on “Babette’s Feast” (1987)
Written and directed by Gabriel Axel from the short story by Karen Blixen
Starring Stéphane Audran, Brigitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer
This is the story of two elderly Danish spinster sisters (Martine and Filippa) who devote themselves to the principles of a religious sect founded by their father in Jutland, and their housekeeper Babette, a refugee from revolutionary Paris, who insists on providing and preparing a high-quality French dinner for friends of her benefactors when she wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery.
The film quickly establishes the pious superiority of the spiritual over the physical in terms of the sisters’ rejection of relationships and pursuit of ambition (and development of talent) to focus instead on good and charitable works within the confines of their small religious community which embody the teachings of their beloved (though long since deceased) father.
Perhaps because of the absence of their righteous, idealistic and domineering spiritual leader, cracks are beginning to show in the spiritual love his “disciples” display to one another as past deeds and wrongs are recalled and old feelings of resentment and anger are evoked. It seems that focus on the spiritual alone can lead to obsessive and mean-spirited behaviour when there is no balance based on experience and compassion.
Babette’s feast, with its emphasis on food, drink, taste, smell and sensory pleasure surely represents the physical side of life and suggests we should indulge our senses and appreciate what sensory delights life has to offer.
After the feast the villagers are far more content, understanding and tolerant, despite misgivings and a determination to remain true to their principles by refusing to recognise or discuss what they experience during the meal. This suggests that a person is complete only when he/she recognises and accepts both aspects of his/her existence – the spiritual and the physical. In this way he/she will know fulfilment rather than simply deny half his/her nature.
We may require the “soul” (or that which is spiritual) to exercise control and reflect upon our actions, but indulging the senses and gaining physical experience lends knowledge and perspective to the spiritual, and encourages understanding and compassion. It is, after all, easy to adopt a haughty moral or spiritual stance if you have never acceded to the possibility of physical temptation – such a stance requires no strength if temptation is not even recognised or if it is avoided. Nature and all its gifts should be appreciated and, combined with reflection and consideration, is a source of socialisation, tolerance and kindness.
The sisters (and indeed all of their father’s congregation) seem to be driven by a desire to evolve spiritually, but with the physical playing a minimal role in that evolution. Yet their lives are enriched by contact with the world outside their small Jutland village, especially by those who visit their community. Lorens, Achille and of course Babette all add something to their lives – Babette’s everyday preparation of food for the poor and infirm is much appreciated by her clients and indeed they are sorely disappointed and upset when Babette takes her leave for a few days and their food is once again prepared by the charitable but less talented sisters. Despite their insistence on the superiority (and perhaps even the sufficiency) of the spiritual, their rather restricted lives are clearly enhanced by encounters of a more physical nature.
That said, after the French dinner, as Lorens is saying his farewells to Martine, he makes it clear that true love does not require a physical aspect to blossom and endure.
Toward the end, as Babette has used her entire lottery win of 10,000 francs to fund her French dinner, it is pointed out to her that she will remain poor for the rest of her life, to which she replies “An artist is never poor.” Presumably, this is to suggest an artist is spiritually rich in talent and skills, talent and skills which lead to fulfilment and a sense of completeness, especially when shared with others. Babette appears to have sacrificed her future for her fellow villagers, but in so doing she has also gained spiritual joy and satisfaction for herself in exercising her artistry with food which, in turn, brings to the fore humanity and a sense of spiritual well-being in others.
Of course, there is also the existential link connecting the main characters – each has an influence on others, though each acts of his/her own volition.
Martine and Filippa devote their lives to caring for the weak and the poor, and to maintaining the principles established by their pastor father. They deny themselves opportunities to cultivate life-paths or careers that might conflict with these principles, though they appreciate and savour their “foreign” encounters with Lorens and Achille in particular. In a sense, these encounters only strengthen their resolve and affirm their faith, but they are nonetheless touched and affected by these meetings and potential life choices.
Achille knew considerable success but this has now faded, and with it his celebrity and position. His greatest achievement, however, may have been to direct Babette toward the sisters’ home (due in no small part to the affection and admiration he developed for Filippa as he shared his talent and skills with her) at a time when Babette’s world crumbled around her. This act of thoughtfulness and consideration undoubtedly saved Babette’s life and positively influenced the lives of all those in the Jutland village. It also provides further illustration of the principle that an artist is never poor when he/she shares his/her talent, and this leads to a spreading of humanity and compassion while allowing the initiator to feel a certain fulfilment and satisfaction.
Lorens becomes a celebrated and influential General largely due to the apparent impossibility of a relationship with Martine, though in the end he appears to value his enduring love and devotion for her above his career and all he has achieved.
At one point in the film it is stated “We take with us only what we give away”, suggesting perhaps that what we do for others is all that matters, and this is borne out by the actions and attitudes of the main characters.
Much has been made of religious connotations in the work – Christian forgiveness at a last supper attended by 12 disciples etc, but I would suggest that the film’s principal strength is in its fundamental message to embrace the duality of our natures in order to achieve fulfilment, while bearing in mind the existential influence we may exercise on others in our dealings with them.
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