It may be all very wise to say that Gabriel Axel`s Danish film Babette`s Feast is much much more than a food film. For who would like to reduce the finer elements of a masterwork to a mere feast however opulent it looks on the screen? But then we are missing the point the film endeavors to make. It is the only film in the history of cinema that makes us feel what serving the tasty food in plentiful measure to unlikely gourmets really means. Babette`s Feast features a multi course dinner for more than forty minutes. It links food with spirit. Culinary preparations and gastronomic consumption are the means and ends that symbolize creation and living respectively. The film is heavily loaded with symbolism with the dinner table laid out for twelve, the elaborate items on it prepared by the thirteenth namely the cook Babette, a Christ like figure. Giving it all to the body is giving it to the soul.
The mystic Tamil poet Tirumoolar says it aptly.
`If the body ruins life ruins too
Ultimate wisdom forever denied
Learning the ways of health,
I Nurtured my body and nurtured life as well`
The film is set in a remote village in Jutland of Norway during the later part of nineteenth century. It has fewer houses with sparse structures and a church to accommodate the handful of faithfuls who are moulded by a rigorous Lutheran priest. In true Lutheran spirit his daughters are christened Martine and Philippa. Both the sisters are as the priest says are his right and left arms. They serve the poor and the infirm in the parish with a dedication that makes their father feel proud. They have no other thought despite their beauty, good manners and age but because of them eligible youths come forward to seek their hands. The priest categorically spurns their offers. The girls think no more of that. But the scenic village by the sea in Jutland brings in visitors who instantly transform into suitors for them.
One is a lieutenant called Lorens Lowenhielm whose aunt belongs to the sect of the priest. Lorens is sent there to reform himself as he is given to extravagant spending resulting in mounting debts. Lorens instantly falls in love with Martine. Strangely Martine does not seem to have bitten by the love bug though she is warm and friendly as she is with everyone else. Lorens finds her ways of austere living merely punishing and leaves. But a certain purity of life which he contacted there seemed to have made him to pursue his life with the singleness of purpose. Henceforth for him service as an army officer is all that counts but love and marriage, no. He had left those thoughts in a faraway site in Jutland.
It is Philippa`s turn now. Achille Papin, a celebrated singer from Paris who wants to inhale fresh country air reaches there. While he is getting what he wants atop a cliff overlooking the sea the air also brings in a melodious voice from the church choir. Papin wants to train Philippa into a soprano singer of repute. The two start duetting much to the consternation of the priest but when Papin hopes that she will clutch his hand and walk out she pulls back herself. Papin leaves jilted but has higher regard for her as he thinks that she has won over her instincts for love and chosen the service for humanity. Life goes on with the same regularity even after the death of the priest. Periodically his devotees congregate and talk of his high values.
One night a deeply agonized woman seeks asylum with the sisters. She is Babette Hersant from Paris sent by Papin. The civil war that crushed the commune in France under the command of General Galliffet had also killed her husband and son and she has no one to look after her. Out of sheer pity the sisters allow her to stay with them. She learns the language quickly and also runs the household efficiently giving more time for the sisters to serve others. In 1885 after fourteen years of Babette`s stay with them they want to organize a meeting to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the priest they all rever. Babette suddenly wins her French lottery of ten thousand francs. She requests them to give her an opportunity to give a French dinner on that occasion. With her wish granted after some hesitation she retires to a nearby city to buy the ingredients for the feast that include quails and a turtle.
On the D-day the army General Lorens too arrives quite unexpectedly with his aunt. Barring him everyone attending the party vows not to talk of the taste of food since showing delight about food would amount to mocking their faith. The hors devours await them on the table. Food arranged in plates comes in an endless procession from the kitchen making the local guests slightly wince in their seats. Lorens is seated like a king. Thereafter it is his show. He savours every bit of food and every drop of wine that are served by the attentive boy Erik. The puritan guests smack their lips and yet they do not give voice to their feelings. An old woman quaffs a drink but pretends that it is like lemonade.
When the boy serves a round dish Lorens half exclaims.`But that is Blinis Demidoff“. He is full of subdued excitement. He lifts a glass of wine and says to his nearest fellow guest. `This most certainly is Veuve Clicquot 1860`. But the hearer responds with all covetousness. `I am quite sure it will snow all day tomorrow`. Lorens stares at him with disbelief but quickly comes back to his wine to taste further. After a long while their taste buds win over their precautions and they openly indulge in eating. Babette knows her food is greatly desired though not everyone appreciating it. But the coach driver sitting in a corner of the kitchen humbly expressing his appreciation to her for every item he is served.
While they are eating at the table Babette is preparing for the next course of food. Cooking and eating seem to be simultaneous. Every item that she prepares, her carving the dough, the arrangement of the quail head on the dish, the wine that she pours over the roast all are shown in great detail. Suddenly the camera which so far had shown only the gray landscapes and muted designs and shapes in the church and in the houses revel in showing fine pieces of cutleries, plates, tall glasses, trays and food items in many shapes and color as in a food advertisement film. Sounds that come while people eat, sip and bite are heard throughout. Preparing the feast and eating it were never made this important.
General Lorens while biting the roasted quail head reminisces of an occasion when he went to a dinner hosted by General Gallifet in Paris at the restaurant Café Anglais. The chief chef was a woman and the item caillas en sarcophagi was her own making. Gallifet had said that the woman had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair. Lorens is sure the item served there is caillas en sarcophagi. Amidst all these food talk Lorens for a moment looks at Marine, a look he has been reserving it seems for the past thirty five years. Befitting her age and character she returns it with a suppressed blush. `Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another ` speaks Lorens at the end thanking the host and also paraphrasing the essence of the film itself.
Everyone takes leave. Sisters are left alone with Babette. Babette says that she has spent all her lottery money in the feast. `An artist is never poor` she says with modest pride. She had given not food but her entire wealth to her guests. She had also served Lorens who under the command of General Gallifet might have been responsible for killing her kith and kin. She had forgiven all that and fed him too. Again unlike Papin and Lorens who left the sisters she chooses to be with them for she knows that her generosity and art have meaning only if they are sheltered with selfless service provided by them. It should also be remembered that she has not thrown her feast to self centered gluttons. But the balance she strikes has however eluded the others.
Stephane Audran as Babette gives a fine performance as a subdued chef who breathes humility throughout. Even when she asserts herself as the former chef of Café Anglais she does it matter of factly. Her high regard for the sisters never leaves her for a moment. Jarl Kullie as General Lorens Lowenhielm is majestic and without vain. He never lifts his eye brows more than required even when he disapproves others` conduct and good mannerly treats the server boy. Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel as Philipa and Martine respectively essay their every move with poise and solemnity. The movie has a running time of 102 minutes.
The film that also won the Oscar under the Best Foreign Feature Film category is based on a story by Isak Dinsen and directed by Gabriel Axel. Axel should be credited for extracting unique performances from his artistes and for keeping the audience rivetingly engrossed in a narrative that has only people talking and eating for the most part. Looking at it from every angle it is an unusual film celebrating sensuality and a parable of grace and unconditional giving of all that one has.