New-Release Tuesday: Babette’s Feast

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

I first saw Babette’s Feast at a 1987 press screening. I would go in cold to these, trying to be as blank and unbiased a slate as possible. Afterward, as I was in the crosswalk at 50th and Roosevelt outside the fabled Seven Gables theater, I noticed that my face hurt. I quickly figured out why: I had been smiling broadly for 90 minutes straight, and my face wasn’t used to it.

There is not a thing in Gabriel Axel’s English-subtitled Danish film that is not absolutely delightful. If you are looking for an uplifting beginning to your new year, I can suggest no better film… as long as you have patience for a subtitled film that blows up nothing but your preconceptions about your neighbors.

The setting is a remote, cloistered late-18th-Century Jutland village. Two spinster sisters attempt to carry on the ministry of their late and severe Protestant father–but their tiny community is suffering both from age and spiritual penury. Long, long ago the sisters both made choices of sacrifice in service to their neighbors, and to God. The fruits of those sacrifices appear to be shriveling.

Into this community comes a refugee from the French Revolution, and with a letter of introduction from a one-time visitor Babette enters into the sisters’ service. The Jutland community slowly becomes more alive and vibrant… until one day Babette wins the national lottery. Everyone expects that, now flush with cash, Babette will flee their austere village.

When Babette announces that she wants to throw a lavish banquet to thank the community for opening its arms to her years before, fear sets in. These conservative Protestants are not used to the devilish excesses of Catholics like Babette…

The titular feast that ensues is a marvel of storytelling and visual art. Not to oversell the comparison, but it’s like a good-hearted Crash or a disinfected and noble Pulp Fiction. Multiple storylines converge in a vision of what heaven might actually be like–where all past tragedies are seen in a new redemptive light, when things not understood are made plain, where spoiled relationships are reconciled. “For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

Stéphane Audran absolutely shines as Babette. My favorite scenes come when there are down moments during the dinner, which she prepares and serves, but in which she does not directly participate. Instead she sits “backstage” as the drama goes on “in front of the curtain,” relishing the process itself in silence and reverie. Many commentators have written that this is a film about food, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a film about the ways in which souls minister to each other, and the culinary arts are just a metaphor employed to that end.

The rest of the cast is just as good as Audran, and is sublimely directed by Gabriel Axel. Babette’s Feast, splendidly adapted from the story by Isak Dinesen, made its debut to acclaim at Cannes, and deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Rarely do I find that a lauded film deserves all its accolades, but this is one of them.

Babette’s Feast is not a Christmas or New Year’s movie, but it might well be. As the villagers join hands under the stars in the falling snow to say one last farewell, you may well find yourself thinking, “I wish this is what my holidays could be like!”

Never discount the future. Expect to be surprised in wondrous ways, even by the downstream effects of what you once thought of as mistakes. Hope is where it’s at.

Babette’s Feast is sadly not included with any of your current subscriptions, but we are indeed fortunate that it is available on Amazon streaming video.