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25 August 2011

Babettes Gæstebud (1987)

 Directed by: Gabriel Axel
Starring:  Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel Jarl Kulle, 
Jean-Philippe Lafont, Bibi Andersson

The movie is set in the late 19th century on a remote, barren, yet beautiful windswept coast of western Jutland. And as the movie begins, we are introduced to two sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer).  

They are the daughters of a Protestant pastor who is so conservative that his brand of Christianity is almost a sect unto itself. 
Turn back the pages of time almost half a century, and we find that the sisters were startlingly beautiful, and had suitors aplenty. 
However, their father believes that 'earthly love and marriage have scant worth'. (Begs the question, doesn't it, why did he marry? Never mind.) And when a local boy plucks up enough courage to ask for Martine's hand in marriage, the puritanical pastor admonishes him - by asking to marry one of his daughters, he (the boy) was robbing him (the pastor) of his hands. Enough to squelch that romance! 

But that boy is not the first, and he certainly is not the last. A young officer of the Swedish cavalry has been sent to the coast to stay with his aunt so he can try to mend his rather-too-profligate behaviour. He falls head-over-heels in love with Martine, and even visits the church regularly so he can meet her. However, Martine seems impervious to his presence. He even dreams that his life will turn around if he had someone as good and pure as her by his side. Alas, it is not to be. She continues to ignore him, and finally, he leaves in despair. Maybe she is too good for him?
Philippa, on the other hand, is being courted by a famous Opera singer from Paris - Achille Papin, who is on a recuperating lease at the seaside. During the rehearsal of Don Giovanni for the Christmas programme, he falls in love with her lovely soprano voice; he has visions of training her to be an Opera singer too; when he plants a chaste kiss on her forehead, she is dismayed, and without further ado, stops all rehearsals. Philippa is distressed. 
If their father demands their unquestioning love and obedience and presence, the girls are no less backward in giving it to him. He comes first, above all. And they cling to the narrow definition of Christianity as espoused by their austere leader, their father, and so refuse all lures of earthly love. Papin cannot but accept her answer as final. And so, he leaves too, never to return.

Life continues, the parson has long since died, but his devoted daughters, both aging spinsters, preside lovingly over the rural congregation. It is a congregation that has banded together, frightened of temptations of life outside their little village. They are tetchy and quarrelsome, not really evil, but so full of petty actions and jealousies that they dredge up old quarrels just for fun. Even the church is not the same.
 It is to this bleak and inhospitable land that a Parisienne refugee comes thirty-five years later, bearing with her a letter of introduction from Philippa's former lover. She is Babette (Stéphane Audran), whose husband and son has been killed in the counter-revolution in France, and Achille begs that the sisters employ her as some sort of house-keeper. and the two sisters kindly give her a home to stay.
Fourteen years pass; years in which Babette has endeared herself not only to the sisters whose lives she has made much more comfortable, but also to others in the village. Babette seems content to stay in the village, not mourning for her homeland, at least not visibly. Her only connection to that long-forsaken land is the lottery in Paris, the ticket for which a friend renews every year. And then one day, she gets a letter (it is a very nice scene - the postmaster, who is also the village shopkeeper, takes a deep breath and goes inside to put on his cap before he delivers the letter) from France. It tells her that she has won the lottery at last - 10,000 francs! 
The news spreads around the village. It is more money than any of them have dreamt of. Babette is now wealthy, and the villagers lose no time in letting the sisters know that she will now leave. Babette is surely happy? She can finally go back to her own land and live in adequate comfort. The sisters are sad; Babette has become part of their family in all these years. But they put a good face on things, and wish her well. 

And then Babette asks them a favour. Could she, by any chance, cook them a real French meal? Not one that they decide, but one that she will cook from scratch. She will decide the menu, she will buy the ingredients, she will cook the meal - after all, it is their father's centenary, and they had already invited the guests. May she? The sisters, helpless in the face of her insistence, give in. And Babette goes away to ask her nephew to order the ingredients for the special meal. 
When the parcel and boxes begin to come in, the village is deliciously agog - what strange things! A turtle, quails, caviar, wine...  The villagers are gossipping. The sisters are aghast. What witches' brew is Babette concocting?

But how can they ask her to cease, once they have given her permission to cook for the feast. Indeed there is much hand wringing going on! Should they go against the teachings of their founder, and give in to so much sensual pleasure? Finally, they decide, the sisters and the congregation, that they will eat what is put in front of them, but they will take no pleasure in it.
Meanwhile, Babette is busy, busy, busy. And the kitchen is a whirlwind of activity. Delicious smells percolate the rest of the house, and the sisters are more and more agitated. And then they get a note from the local lady of the manor; her nephew is visiting. (It is Martine's old Lieutenant.) May she bring him along? Babette reassures the sisters that there will be plenty of food.

Soon, it is the night of the feast. And the guests are astonished at the splendour they see in the sisters' usually rustic home. The long banquet table is covered with a starched, ivory white tablecloth; the finest China and crystal place settings and silver cutlery shine in the reflected glow of the antique candlebras; the ambience reflects a sophisticated elegance so at odds with the usual atmosphere of the house.
They troop quietly in, and sit down even more quietly. Babette comes in with the apéritif - an aged Sherry (amontillado), and the first course: Turtle Soup. They have barely finished that when the other courses make a magical appearance: Blinis Demidoff (buckwheat cakes with caviar), Caille en Sarcophage (quail with foie gras and truffle sauce), a walnut-Belgian Chicory salad, Cheese and fruit, and the meal ends on a high note - with a dessert of Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruits Glacées (Rum cake with figs and glazed fruit). The finest wines and champagnes perfectly complement every course.
Martine's old suitor is now a General married to a lady-in-waiting to the Swedish queen. He, of all the guests, is the only one who appreciates the quality of  the meal. He frequently comments on the various courses, and the wines, which remind him strongly of a meal he had once had in one of the best restaurants in Paris - the Café Anglais. The other guests studiously avoid all topic of food even if it is obvious that the dinner has mellowed them. Old wounds have ceased to matter; old romances are being rekindled, and a peace hitherto unknown settles over the table. Babette herself is nowhere to be seen. She has cooked, she has served, and now she sits silently in the kitchen sipping a glass of wine. One wonders what she is thinking - whether the act of cooking was reward in itself, because her guests, with the exception of one, really do not understand what it is they are eating and drinking.
However, there is great art in her cooking, because, adamant though they are that they will not take pleasure in the feast, the guests have relaxed; and it is not a momentary relaxation, it is a realisation that not all pleasures of the flesh are bad all the time. You can see the change. What is more, they can see (and feel it) too.

But who is  Babette? And what will she do now that the feast is over? 
The ending is as heartwarming as the beginning is bleak. Even the colours lighten from the dreary washed-out blue-greys of a storm-tossed coast with which the film opens to the colours of the banquet, and the rich glow of the candles. There is quiet humour, and warmth and affection in the way the characters are drawn. And Stéphane Audran was Babette. It was a role offered to Catherine Deneuve, but she turned it down and Audran snapped it up. The film also had a fine ensemble cast of Danish actors who played the roles of the villagers. The film can be seen as a representation and/or satire of Christianity's tenets (the last supper, the 12 guests) but it is more than that - it's about human warmth and interaction, about human frailties and weaknesses, and it shows the triumph of selfless love - without preaching. 

The direction is slow, meticulous, with an attention to detail - every character lovingly drawn, every wrinkle in every aged / aging face showing the nuances of expression that one can scarcely take one's eyes away from the screen to read the sub-titles. Little scenes: like the expression on Babette's face when she first tastes the pig slop and salted cod that is the usual fare in her new home, the expression on the General's face when he takes the first sip of his wine, and realises at once that it is finer than he expected; the villagers, who vow not to say anything, but their expressions of shock when they taste the food, their slow acceptance of its sumptuousness; the sisters' feelings as they realise what Babette has really given them...
I watched this movie more than ten years ago on an old VHS tape; bought it on DVD as soon as I could afford it (can anyone tell me why good European movies have to cost a bomb?); I have watched it many times since then, and each time, I have come away with a better appreciation of what the movie is trying to say. There is restraint and there is grace in this gentle tale so simply told. There is richness in its simplicity, there is happiness in sadness, there is conflict and resolution in this story of loss and redemption. And the music, by Mozart and Brahms, combined with some pleasant hymns, complements the film’s slow unwinding.

For anyone who loves good cinema, from wherever in the world it might be, Babette's Feast is a must-see.  It is a slow movie, be warned (the feast itself taking up an hour), the director almost painting the film on screen, one delicate brushstroke at a time, but oh, it is worth it! 

P.S. Don't watch the movie when you are hungry.


  1. I'd never heard of this movie before, but it sounds wonderful (what do you expect from someone who watches ONLY one TV programme - Masterchef Australia?!) But, food apart, the dynamics between people, the prejudices and the rest - sound very interesting. Thank you! - will look out for this.

  2. Madhu, my regular TV viewing is restricted to Bill Moyers. :) So you are talking to someone *exactly* like you. I unbend, once in a while, for Brit comedies like As Time Goes By (which I own, now, so I don't have to wait for TV. Have you seen this? If not, get your hands on them, pronto. It's hilarious!), and To The Manor Born. Or if they have some topical discussion on PBS.

    I got exposed to a lot of European cinema when I was working; and my husband was a film snob :) so between him and my work which gave me access to film festivals in Bombay, I ended up seeing a lot of these films. And now, I trawl the web for interesting-sounding films; most of the times, they are so-so, but once in a while comes a film that is a real gem.

    Babette's Feast is wonderful. It shouldn't be difficult to get your hands on it - it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year. It is much more difficult to get your hands on the small movies.

    I will try and put up some more reviews of films like this one - there are some awfully good movies out there.

  3. Thanks for this review, Anu. I had not heard of this movie either. My loss, now that I have read the review! I promptly went and looked it up, and have added it the top of my queue on Netflix.

    And yes, do, do, do post reviews of movie like these. I am not very conversant with movies other than British ones, the usual Hollywood and Hindi films. Even other language cinema from India is outside my ken. So I have to depend on reviews to tell me what to see - and there aren't that many good ones out there, especially for other language cinema; even European cinema, come to think of it, if it is not French or Italian.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Tina, and the suggestions. Will do my best. :)

  5. Add me to the list of people who are saying 'Please review some more movies like these, Anu'. I haven't seen this film either; as you say, my exposure to European cinema is limited to French movies, or the ones that win the Foreign Language category at the Oscars. And that too, not very often. So it is always good to get recommendations.

  6. I will certainl look out for it now, Anu! I don't watch a huge amount of European cinema - but I have been making an attempt, for the past couple of years (ever since I began blogging, actually) to watch more of it. Though I do restrict myself usually to stuff that's from the 60s or earlier (which is why my favourite Italian film till now happens to be I Soliti Ignoti!), I am not averse to newer cinema.

  7. French films have a cachet because they are considered great just by virtue of being French. And by that, I do not say that French films do not deserve their reputation - there are some awfully good films out there. But there are equally bad films. The problem is that there are some great movies coming out of the other countries that do not get this publicity, and therefore the audience.

  8. Then, have you seen a film called Il gattopardo (The Leopard), Madhu? God, you should! It is Italian, but also stars Alain Delon, probably the only handsome French hero. It is directed by Luchino Visconti, and should actually be right up your alley - it is set in the 1860s in Sicily and is a story of the Prince of Salina. It co-starred Burt Lancaster (yes, him!) and Claudia Cardinale. Wonderful, wonderful movie. I will see if I can review it next for you. In any case, try to get your hands on the film if you can.

  9. I will, Anu! Thank you for that recommendation. :-)

    P.S. I also like Louis Jourdan when it comes to looks.... il est magnifique.

  10. Anu, I've just finished watching Babette's Feast (I've been on a carousel of food films; the only one other than this that actually made me feel hungry was Julie & Julia). This one was such a good film - so well made, and so simple, really. Just about the very basic happinesses of life. Thank you for recommending it - I truly LOVED it. :-)

    P.S. Another amazing scene is when, while Babette has gone off to Frederikshavn to give her nephew instructions, the two sisters start cooking again and take the food around to their charity cases. And there's this old man - who till now has been always waiting impatiently every day to see what food they've got him - when he sees it's that same old greenish glop... the way his face falls is a sight!!

  11.  I'm glad you did, Madhu. :) I think the best films are the simple ones, if it's well-crafted.

  12. Didn't realize this was an Indian movie! We used to call it Babette's Feet. We were kids when it came out and my sister hates smiley feet. So we used to tease her about watching Babett's feet. Ah ah...

  13. You don't really read my reviews, do you? [grin] I specifically said it was an European film; in fact, it is Danish.

  14. Wow, I can't believe I got a response from the Warrier herself. Sorry,I didn't . I was simply going through your list of Indian movies and I saw the title. But nice to get a reaction. My favorite movie from those years is Blue Valvet. We clearly like different types of movies when it comes to western movies. But love your reviews although I am a late comer to your site!

  15. :) I do try and respond to everyone who writes a comment, unless they are spamming my blog.

    Thank you for the compliment. It's okay that we have different tastes, no? The world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.


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