The BFI continues to turn out some lovely and unusual choices for the festive seasons. Last year they screened Meet Me in St Louis, and this year it’s Babette’s Feast (1987) - a film I had never seen, despite being best friends with a professional chef who adores it.
The story: in the middle of the 19th Century a tiny religious community in rural Denmark witnesses the arrival of various strangers (a Swedish captain, a French opera singer) who seek to woo and marry the local pastor’s two beautiful daughters. The daughters are bashful and devoted to their religion, and partly by choice, partly by accident, they end up embracing spinsterhood. A final stranger arrives, this time a French woman called Babette, who is on the run from Paris after the revolution kills her entire family, seeking to stay in the village as a maid and cook in the pastor’s house. The two -now elderly- sisters tell her they can’t afford to pay her services (even though they are quite well off), but she agrees to stay on and work for them regardless. She settles into life in Jutland, learns Danish, strikes up a series of friendships and working relationships with the villagers, and is generally accepted as a mysterious and extravagant member of the community. One day she receives a letter telling her that she has won a huge prize of 10,000F in a French lottery. It appears obvious that she is going to leave the village and move back to France, but before leaving she asks the sisters to be allowed to prepare a special French dinner for the 100th anniversary of the parish. The exotic ingredients begin to arrive - caviar, Burgundy, Champagne, quails, and even a giant live turtle - and the villagers’ religious beliefs begin to shake: won’t all this excess seem depraved in the eyes of God?
On my way to the screening I read this review on Little White Lies, and with it in mind I sat in the cinema, feeling a little worried that I was going to see something placid and superficial - if not outright perverse at a time of global financial crisis. Fortunately I think the reviewer is mistaken on many counts, and most of all on the understanding that this is a story that celebrates consumerism, expenditure and wastefulness as opposed to spiritual richness. Only a strict Calvinist, or somebody who has neither tastebuds, nor appreciation of the social and emotional value of collective dining, let alone an understanding of the experience of cooking for others can come up with such a reductive idea.
This is not simply a film about the earthly delights of eating, and it’s far from the epicurean selfishness of the gastronomy fanboys glorified in so many recent popular TV programmes. On the contrary, Babette’s Feast is a celebration of generosity and the shared pleasure of offering one’s talent and taste to others. Food in the film is a social and emotional catalyst, something to thaw the frozen mind and enlighten the spirit’s way to goodness and joy.
It also isn’t an anti-religious film. While Babette’s Feast certainly does criticise the Puritanical meagreness of this Jutland community - dictated not by poverty, but by enforced tightness and suppressed pleasures that lead to unresolved tensions - the film is also a deeply spiritual meditation on the idea of service and sacrifice: Babette offers up all the lottery money she unexpectedly wins to buy the extravagant ingredients for the dinner. It’s not a wasteful gesture because it is done to honour the household that took her in at a time of disgrace. She spends all the lottery money for others who helped her, not leaving any money behind for herself alone to be able to return to France: the dinner is a heartfelt thank you note written with her genius and talent, a gift to those who were kind to her.
This strikes me as a profoundly Christian idea - think of the parable of the talents: he who hides his talent in the ground does not make it fruitful and wastes it for himself, his master and his community. For a long time I was very confused about this story - although I couldn’t articulate it, I found its moral greedy and capitalist, and couldn’t get my head around it. I recognise now that its significance is that even the most apparently useless talents we are given must be put to good use for others.
Babette’s Feast does precisely that, and it proves a wonderful, alternative Christmas movie for the non-religious. For surely even an agnostic like me understands that the only joy in life is the joy we share with others, and if I can bring some joy into your lives by telling you to go and see this film, then even my silly talent for talking endlessly about films will have been put to a good use.
PS. A practical note of advice: do not watch this film on an empty stomach, or if you do, make sure you have a sumptuous dinner ready when you leave the cinema - you’ll be very, very hungry.