“Babette’s Feast” is a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the Danish author whose real life experiences managing a farm in British East Africa (colonial Kenya) led her to write Out of Africa (1937). Anyone who has read that book, or seen the 1985 film of it, knows that, at the end of her time in Africa, she returned to her native Denmark where she would live out her days crafting her famous memoir as well as an impressive host of short stories. “Babette’s Feast” first appeared in a magazine, the Ladies’ Homes Journal, in 1950, and it was again published in 1958 in a story collection called Anecdotes of Destiny. Notably, Dinesen wrote in English and then translated her own works into Danish (so you won’t see any translator credited).
As a teller of tales, Dinesen did not restrict herself to any brief time interval. She could easily follow her characters across decades of their lives, to arrive at the moment that crystallized their destiny. “Babette’s Feast” is certainly such a tale, recounting the story of two sisters, Martine and Philippa, from girlhood to old age, and preparing these characters for one remarkable feast bestowed on them and their friends by their mysterious French housekeeper and cook, Babette Hersant.
Martine and Philippa lived with their father, the Dean of a small lay community of Pietists (strict Lutherans following an austere lifestyle much like the Puritans). Devoted to their father and faithful to their way of life, the young women were also radiantly beautiful and each attracted a suitor even in their remote surroundings. Dinesen devoted a section to each girl’s early love story. “Martine’s Lover” tells how a young lieutenant, Lorens Loewenhielm, was sent by his commanding officer to this very village to visit his aunt; he wanted the wild young man to spend some time away from too much high living and settle himself down a bit. Lorens met Martine in church and, by and by, found himself frequently at the Dean’s table for dinner. Rather than pressing his suit to marry this girl who moved his heart, he became more and more intimidated, more and more uncertain of his resolve to reform, and left one day to resume his life in the army and the glittering court society. “Philippa’s Lover” was quite different; Achille Papin was a mature man and an artist–an acclaimed opera singer who came to the village to rest. Listening to Philippa sing in church, he discovered her extraordinary singing talent and somehow convinced the Dean to permit him to give her voice lessons. Achille had great plans for her to become a celebrated singer herself, and his wife, if she agreed. During one lesson, Achille at last expressed his love for her with a sincere kiss to finish their singing of the tender duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina. In this case, it was Philippa who drew back from romance; she ended her lessons, asking her father to send her teacher a letter of apology.
Achille returned to Paris and never saw his dearly loved Philippa again but many years later he did one remarkable thing for her and her sister: he sent them Babette. She was a refugee from the Paris Commune, and without giving many details of her political activities, he asked and urged them to take her in and let her be their housekeeper. Innocently, he closed his letter by saying simply, “Babette can cook.” The sisters had no idea at first what lay behind that simple truth.
Martine and Philippa were reluctant initially, wary of what this unknown Frenchwoman might be like and what sort of food she might thrust upon their simple tastes. Their genuine Christian charity prevailed, however, and they offered her a place in their home. They needn’t have feared; the discreet Babette kept her counsel and cooked plain cod and soup for the elderly sisters in the style they preferred. Twelve years passed in this way, until one day, Babette surprised them. She announced that she had won 10,000 francs in the lottery! She proposed using this money to cook them a real French dinner, on the upcoming memorial occasion of the Dean’s 100th birthday. To do this, she would need to travel to Paris for a few weeks to order and obtain all she needed to prepare the celebratory feast.
They wanted to refuse, I think–not wanting her to use her money this way, and fearing she might leave them for good. Yet once again, their deep sense of fairness and charity prevailed and they let Babette have her way.
One more surprise was in store for them. The sisters learned that Lorens Loewenhielm, now a distinguished General, was once again visiting his aunt, who asked if he could accompany her to their celebration. Martine, beautifully composed, said yes without hesitation and prepared for this unexpected reunion with him. For his part, the General wished to make amends for his lack of self-assurance in his youth, and cut a more confident figure at the dinner. He had never truly made peace with himself and the direction he chose for his life.
At last in the sisters’ home again, he was perplexed and pleased at the meal itself–the expensive wines, the rare ingredients, and gourmet dishes which reminded him distinctly of an unforgettable meal he had eaten in Paris years ago. Could this really be Veuve Clicquot 1860 he was drinking? Was this dish Blinis Demidoff, tiny pancakes filled with caviar? He took the first opportunity to speak, his heart brimming with a mixture of love and astonishment:
“Man, my friends, said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble…”
“We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. … See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
What the General expressed was felt by each person at the table in her or his own way. The film shows beautifully, with just a few touches and words, how rifts were healed, arguments settled, love restored, between pairs of diners united in the glow of grace and forgiveness. Indeed, it was Dinesen herself who served up this moment of their mutually felt epiphany. “Unpacking” the full meaning and implications of the General’s speech is the interpretive work that the author gives us. In some ways, Loewenhielm functions in the story as the “wise fool”–an accidentally oracular figure–because he is the only one who does not know the open secret of Babette’s Feast, the unspoken uniqueness of it all. No one disabuses him of the impression that this is the way the two elderly sisters and their small conventicle of believers dined frequently, if not every day!
Gabriel Axel’s exquisitely beautiful, touching, and warmly ironic film makes the dynamics of the special feast apparent in a way that surpasses even the perfection of Dinesen’s story–one type of artistic perfection vying and dancing with the other. We see the pious elderly community, which had clung together all these years in the Dean’s name and adhered to his austere example, come together to celebrate his 100th birthday and make a promise, one and all, to remain silent throughout the meal–not to give in to the stimulation of their senses by any exclamations or comment, either of pleasure or displeasure at the unusual food they are about to receive. The General, therefore, who is a special guest from outside the group, becomes the only mouthpiece to convey the remarkable flavors, textures, and rare delights of food and drink presented at the table. The only other exceptions are the kitchen boy who is given small portions to enjoy after his serving work is done, and Babette herself–the luminous and self-possessed Stéphane Audran–who allows herself to close her eyes in appreciation of a sip of wine and then gently smile.
The two-disc DVD version includes a booklet with Isak Dinesen’s complete story along with a very helpful essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu. He remarks on the fidelity of the film to the story, noting that short stories more naturally expand to fill the time of a feature film in the telling, without much pruning being required. Still, in the filmmaking it becomes the director’s story to tell as he decides, and Axel chose to move the story which Dinesen set in Berlevaag, Norway to her own native Denmark, to a fishing village in the region of Jutland. In the soundtrack, Le Fanu informs us, we hear dialogue in both Danish and Swedish; because of linguistic history, these related languages are mutually intelligible, so we can depend on knowing that the simple Danish folk understood the gist of what the Swedish General Loewenhielm rose to say with such deep feeling.
Can I review “Babette’s Feast” without talking about the food? Here the film excels indeed in showing us what Dinesen has described so vividly, the rich delicacies offered to these Spartan Danish palettes. (The New York Times review of the film in 1988 dwells on the ingredients of the various dishes, even including a few recipes.) Vegetarians or the squeamish beware! Babette is a chef, and wants to use only the freshest ingredients, so we see the arrival of many live ingredients: a rustic cage of tiny quails who will end up in pastry for the cailles en sarcophage (“quails in sarcophagus”) and a big turtle who will sadly end up as soup. Plenty of butchered meats are hauled in to her kitchen, but we also see the lovelier, succulent treats of fresh figs, grapes, and other bounty of the garden. It is revealed in the story (indirectly) and in the film that Babette once practiced her culinary art as chef at the Café Anglais in Paris. It closed in 1913; here is a vintage photo taken before its destruction:
I will long remember the images from this jewel of a film, which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the first Danish film to do so. I can see the rapturous faces of the twelve people gathered around the table, gifted with a meal that seemed to erase any division between material and spiritual blessings, self-denial and abundance, effort and grace. For that evening, “mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed,” and they all became one.