Soul Food: Why Babette’s Feast is essential Christmas viewing
A small religious community in 19th-century rural Denmark witnesses the arrival of various exotic strangers (a dashing Swedish captain, a French baritone) seeking to woo and marry the local pastor’s beautiful daughters. The two girls are bashful and devoted to a religious life; partly by choice, partly by accident, they end up embracing spinsterhood. Years later, another stranger arrives in the village, a French woman called Babette. A refugee from Paris, where the counter-revolutionary struggle has seen the demise of her family and fortune, Babette offers her services as a maid and cook in the pastor’s house and the sisters take her in.
Babette settles into life in Jutland, learns Danish, strikes up a series of friendships and working relationships with the villagers, and while preserving the mystery and extravagance of her character, she is generally accepted as a member of the strict community. After many years in the village, she unexpectedly receives news that she has won a huge sum of money in a lottery with a ticket gifted to her by her best friend in France. The prize would buy her the chance to return to her native Paris, but before leaving she asks the sisters to be allowed to prepare a special French dinner for the 100th anniversary of the parish. As the imported luxury ingredients – caviar, champagne, quails, and even a giant live turtle – arrive in the kitchen, the villagers’ religious beliefs begin to shake: won’t all this excess seem depraved in the eyes of God?
The delightful adaptation of a glorious short story by Danish author Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988. Upon a recent re-release in 2014, some reviewers criticised what they perceived to be the film’s consumerist message, reflecting its 1980s production context – Babette is indeed a contemporary of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, whose mantra was “greed is good”. In our times of austerity and financial crisis, industrial food waste, and increasing numbers of malnourished and hungry people in the world, the feast itself could be seen as an outright act of greedy perversion.
But anybody who has ever experienced the joy of cooking for others, and understands the social and emotional value of collective dining will see that there is nothing wasteful about Babette’s feast. This is not simply a film about the earthly delights of eating for eating’s sake, and it’s far from the epicurean selfishness of hipster foodies. On the contrary, it is a celebration of generosity, self-sacrifice, and the shared pleasure of offering one’s talent and genius in kind service to those who are in turn kind to us. As the characters experience unknown flavours they start to remember old pleasures: food is a physical and spiritual catalyst, something to thaw frozen hearts and minds, and enlighten the community’s way to goodness and joy.
A few years ago the BFI selected Babette’s Feast for its inspired alternative Christmas programme. Together with The Godfather, Fanny & Alexander, Casablanca, Disney’s Robin Hood and In Bruges it has now become a staple of my own non-traditional Yuletide film menu. While there is nothing specifically seasonal about Babette’s Feast, the combination of a stern Nordic atmosphere and warm spiritual core turns it into a perfect Christmas parable for the non-religious. But make sure you do not watch it on an empty stomach - you’ll get very, very hungry.
Dr Irene Musumeci Klein, Curzon Cinemas