Someone asked me to introduce a screening of this film and I agreed because I remembered how popular it had been, even if I’d chosen not to see it at the time. I’m so glad that I did accept the offer and then research the film because now I know what I missed.
Directed by the veteran Danish director Gabriel Axel (born 1918) as an adaptation of the short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast was the 1988 Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It is also adorned by the presence, in the title role, of the wondrous Stéphane Audran.
The narrative has a flashback structure, but the plot is straightforward. The story is set in a remote fishing village on the Jutland coast in the 19th century. Two beautiful sisters assist their father in his Lutheran ministry. They are named Martine and Filippa after Martin Luther and his friend Philip Melanchthon. The young women are so devoted (and devout) that they both turn down suitors and when their father dies several years later they carry on serving his (now ageing) flock in the village. After a few years they are surprised to receive a woman at their door one stormy night. She carries a letter from one of the original suitors who asks them to offer the woman sanctuary. This is Babette, who has had to flee from Paris after the 1870 Revolution. She persuades them to take her on as an unpaid but highly competent cook/housekeeper. The final part of the story occurs several more years later when Babette gets the chance to prepare a special meal – her ‘feast’. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment so I won’t offer any more detail, only to say that the feast is very special indeed.
Karen Blixen wrote under several pseudonyms including ‘Isak Dinesen’ – a reference to her maiden name. Born in Denmark in 1885 she married her second cousin, a Swedish Baron, and set up a coffee plantation with him in Kenya in 1914. The marriage did not last and she moved into a long affair with an Englishman. When she began to write short stories in earnest in the 1930s, she wrote first in English and then translated the text into Danish. She was based in Denmark during the German occupation when she completed her only full-length novel. In the 1940s and 1950s she wrote several more books of stories including Babette’s Feast, first published in an American magazine in 1953. She died in 1962, only a few years before the first celebrated cinematic version of one of her stories was directed as The Immortal Story by Orson Welles for French television in 1968 (starring Jeanne Moreau). Her book based on her Kenyan experience was later adapted as Out of Africa winning seven Oscars in 1986 (with Meryl Streep directed by Sidney Pollack). Some of her other writing has also been adapted for Danish television and for the Italian film Ehrengard (1982).
Blixen’s writing is mainly set in the past and sounds as if it shares with some of the great 19th century short story writers a sense of mystery and wonder. If Babette’s Feast is slight on the surface it offers plenty to reflect on. It’s one of those narratives which require you to invest heavily in concentration and patience before delivering – little happens in terms of action but there is plenty to observe and then to infer. Why do the women never marry? What do they think that they gain through pursuing a life of simplicity? It occurred to me that some of the pleasure contemporary audiences may get from the film might be similar to the pleasure of watching BBC costume dramas such as Cranford – and yet Babette’s Feast is different in that there is an element of Danish/Swedish Lutheran severity that cuts across any sense of cosiness and is in dramatic conflict with the French sophistication brought into the community by outsiders. The two most obvious filmmakers to reference are Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. But I think that these names might put off audiences who fear that the film may be too grim and austere – it is in many ways a gentle comedy.
A great deal has been written about the story and its adaptation and many web references are accessible via the Karen Blixen website. There are a few confusions in the various materials collated on this site and it is worth clearing these up if you watch the film or read the book. The film is set in Jutland, but this was the decision of the Danish director who transferred the setting from the original which places the settlement in Norway. The soldier in the film is actually in the Swedish Army. One reason for the confusion is that over several centuries Sweden, Denmark and Norway were often part of the same kingdom. In the 19th century Sweden and Norway were one kingdom and Denmark was separate (although attempts were made to bring it into a union). Jutland is physically close to both Norway and Sweden. Some viewers/readers have challenged the idea that the locals would have understood French at this time but I think it is the case that educated people in this region would have known French as the major European language and certainly the lingua franca of travellers.
I’m not going to offer a reading of the film or the short story (which I haven’t read) – there are plenty on the websites. But it is interesting that many offer a reading based on ideas about Christianity, possibly around the differences between Protestant and Catholic traditions, and the idea of celebration through food. But as some other accounts point out, Karen Blixen was a Romantic novelist interested in travel and adventure and her interests went far beyond local religious beliefs. The preparation of food and the rituals associated with feasting are important in most cultures. This is the beauty of the story which is in one sense very simple, but also allows everyone to explore their own meanings.
The power of the film comes through the script, the performances and the use of setting and casting. Axel fought to have Swedish and French actors of standing play the French and Swedish characters. The Danish casting draws on the higher echelons of Danish theatre. The film shares that sense of the magical/mystical that can be found in Michael Powell’s British films set in the Western Isles of Scotland such as The Edge of the World and I Know Where I’m Going. The people who grow up in such places are perhaps attuned to the wildness of the environment, whereas those who come from outside (like the suitors in the film) are overwhelmed by the sense of natural forces released. One way to read the story is that the two sisters have suppressed their passion – sublimated it to the service of others – and perhaps it needs an outsider to release it again.
I think it would be a shame if this wonderful film is remembered only by foodies and those who make specifically religious readings. It should be a film for anybody interested in the human condition.