A satisfying end (Desserts or deserts: Part 4 of 4)
Food. The ultimate love language. Dessert. The reward for a day (read: life) well spent. Here, we have a movie of surprising historical scope that surprises further by wielding that scope like a sneaking mallet. Before you realize it’s upon you, it’s hitting you in the head, making clear some of life’s most evident and elusive lessons.
Two elderly sisters, Martine and Filippa, deliver meals and knitted wares to neighbors in a remote village on the western coast of Denmark. (They refer to their region as Jutland, but obviously that’s not a real place.) We see them sing Protestant hymns at a full table of older folks when a younger woman enters the room with a tray to serve them. The younger woman is the French maid of the two sisters. Her name is Babette. The reason two sisters living in such a remote place in the 19th century have a French maid is, as the movie puts it, to be found in the domain of human hearts.
Babettes Gæstebud (Babette’s Feast, 1987) flashes back 49 years. The sisters' beauty is known throughout the village, and young men go to church simply to gaze upon them. One such suitor shows up at the house of the young women, only to be turned away by their father, the pastor: “In this calling of mine, my two daughters are my right and left hands. Would you deprive me of them?” Another suitor, who could easily pass as the Danish Jack Black of the 80s, arrives and begins teaching singing lessons to one of the sisters. These suitors represent our lives' different paths based on our choices. Our choices define us, and when we’re old and looking back, we might converse with our younger selves, questioning their decisions.
One of the sublime joys of Babette’s Feast is getting lost in the story of these two sisters while occasionally snapping out of it and thinking, “Wait, why is this movie called Babette’s Feast?” It hooks you with its tale of two beautiful sisters from the old country and the horny struggling men who lust after them, but it keeps you as it slowly develops into something much deeper than a prestige period piece. It patiently guides you along these personally historic flirtations so that you understand, too well, the fifty-yard gazes on the faces of these women as they consider the decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
What is more challenging to understand is what eventually develops into the textual conflict of the film. The villagers, knowing that Babette is preparing a meal for them, worry that the foreign (read: French) cuisine might awaken evils within them. A scene that magnificently illuminates rural thinking throughout history gives us a villager lamenting: “The tongue. The tongue, that strange little muscle has accomplished great and glorious deeds for man. But it’s also an unruly evil full of deadly poison.” Just eat your turtle soup.
We’ve all seen films depicting the sometimes crushing weight of life at different times and places on earth; Babette’s Feast works its way into your brain with the minute details of a less weighty but more memorable experience: Food. Buying two onions at a small grocer in a language you don’t understand. Stooping in a field to smell the herbs. Feeling the crunch of fresh vegetables as you prep. Pouring a glass of Veuve Cliquot, 1860. Pouring another glass of the Veuve Cliquot. Sharing a meal with old friends and basking in the satisfaction of feeling well-supped and sharing the experience.
Love, high society, art, ambition, faith, opera, rural living, humility, and food. Babette’s Feast transitions through these things to show us how they’re all connected, how we’re all connected. As another year ends, it’s a movie that will remind you that life is short, but show you that thinking about what-might-have-been is not the same as regret.
Written by Karen Blixen and Gabriel Axel; Directed by Gabriel Axel
Danish, French, Hungarian, Swedish
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Available on the Criterion Channel or Max (the HBO one.)