Provost's Film Series
October 25, 2002
Babette Hersant, the magnificent chef in Isak Dineson's short story, is a terrorist. When she arrives among a group of puritanical Lutherans on the barren heaths of Jutland, the villagers see a lonely, rain-soaked refugee. There is no Christian duty other than to provide her shelter. They never realize that their new guest was a "petroleuse," a rebel who doused Parisian homes with gasoline and torched them.
That criminal past is obscured in Gabriel Axel’s film adaptation of Dineson’s story. Ever since this quiet Danish production claimed the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988, it has won favor for its genial evocation of Christian devotion and sportive take on sectarian rigor. Confident in its simplicity, it probes into the insular and often quarrelsome lives of the villagers, but with more respect than condescension, and it depicts gestures of Christian idealism with reverent understatement, even with a satirical wink here and there. It is, quite frankly, a rare event in modern cinema: a story about how religious faith can awaken the spirit and kindle laughter.
But there is something fiercer in the shadows. A little background first.
Babette's Feast was based on a short story written by Karen Blixen, who published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Originally published in Ladies Home Journal in 1950, Dinesen's story was included in the collection Anecdotes of Destiny in 1958, four years before her death. Born in 1885 at the family estate just north of Copenhagen, Karen Blixen became both a baroness and a writer of international acclaim. After her father's suicide when she was ten, she traveled extensively with her mother and sisters, studying French in Switzerland and art in Denmark. Several of her early stories were published when she was in her twenties, about the time she fell in love with Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke, the son of her father's cousin. Eventually she married Hans' twin brother, Baron Fror von Blixen-Finecke, and sailed to Africa to start a coffee plantation in Kenya. She began a second plantation in Kenya's Rift Valley, accumulating over 9000 acres of land. Her marriage soured early, and her husband left her to manage the plantations on her own. At age 33 she fell in love with an English hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who lived with her briefly before his death in an airplane crash. The story of their love, which included a miscarriage or two, is romanticized in the film Out of Africa. In 1931, at the age of 46, she returned to Denmark, and soon began publishing her most famous books, including Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Out of Africa (1937-38) and Winter's Tales (1942). Often nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature, the author of “Babette’s Feast” died in 1962, largely because of malnutrition.
The screenplay was adapted from her story by Gabriel Axel, who also directed the film. Like Blixen, Axel is a native of Denmark who has spent considerable time outside of the country, especially in France. The script, which includes both Danish and French languages, explores a moment when the traditions of Paris—a world of art, culture, ceremony, excess, and Catholicism—meet the strict life of a Lutheran sect in Jutland, the rugged northwestern peninsula of Denmark. That clash of cultures comes to the fore in a feast that Babette will offer in gratitude to the people who gave her refuge.
The beauty of this quiet story derives from its subtle ironies and its many layers of religious ideas and imagery. The idea of a feast itself—which is vaguely sinful amidst the codfish, coarse bread and thin-soup culture of the austere Protestants—invokes the Christian (and largely Catholic) tradition of sacramentalism. The film juxtaposes the fear that fine dining may be a threat to spiritual purity with the possibility that a lavish feast may be a kind of sacrament, a ceremony of Christian community and love. Offered among an aging population in memory of their founder, the feast will also invite numerous comparisons to the Last Supper and the tradition of the Christian Eucharist. The Catholic emphasis on sacramentalism and absolution and the Protestant emphasis on grace and community provide interesting subthemes in this dinner story.
The showpiece of Babette's final feast—the dish that signals her background as the great chef at the Café Anglais in Paris—is a unique creation entitled “calles on sacrophage,” or small cooked quails framed in a wine-soaked biscuit. As the Lutherans fear, this delicacy appears to be the height of decadence, all the more so when the worldly guest, General Lowenhielm, proclaims this the most extraordinary discovery of his life among the gourmet tables of France. Axel hits a comic high note with this scene: the odd sight of quail heads protruding from the bread, the bewildered stares of the Lutherans, the General’s euphoric outburst about such a strange, small dish. But the full humor emerges when we consider that something so visually strange and indulgent is also a spiritual metaphor. The bread and quail evoke the story of the manna and quail that God provided Moses and the Hebrews during their wilderness wandering. Sacrophage literally means “flesh eater,” an allusion to the Catholic belief that Christ is literally present in the host. These stuffy Lutherans, you might say, are about to take mass.
Austerity and Elegance
In many respects, the director offers viewers a cinematographic feast of austerity and elegance. Many of the scenes have a visual simplicity and rugged primitiveness that parallel the scarcity and restraint of the village's conservative creeds. Director Axel based much of his image of the community on a well-known Scandinavian painting by Niels Bjerre, "The Prayer Meeting," a depiction of the Home Mission evangelical movement. On other occasions the film delights in ornate costumes and glamorous food. In several scenes simplicity and elegance coexist, such as the artistically prepared food and the old wooden bowls. Several critics have praised the film for its astute and respectful presentation of holiness. Aware that pious communities could have their fractious and petty disputes, the filmmakers emphasize the self-denial of the pious sect, making us equally aware of the attractions of the life that the believers have given up and the beauty of the life they have chosen.
The music of the film, which includes opera, a Brahms waltz and several famous hymns, similarly provides a contrast of the austere and the elegant. Some of that tension and balance is evident in Per Norgaard's sparse musical score, which offers close, acerbic harmonies and a long sostenuiti, a violin-viola-cello quartet.
Babette's Feast echoes some of the themes of the Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whose work was published shortly before the story takes place. This story, like Kierkegaard, dwells on the struggle between duty and sacrifice and the contrast of faith with the aesthetic. Since these struggles often require self-denial and restraint, Kierkegaard was also obsessed with the possibilities for recovering what was lost. Like many individuals of faith, Kierkegaard was interested in the search for the infinite and the transcendent, but he also recognized the "return to the finite" as an important stage in spiritual growth. In many ways, Babette's Feast is a story about the possibilities for recovering what was lost through a rediscovery of the beauty and spirituality of ordinary, finite things. The film approaches such themes with a quiet spirit that Kierkegaard often lacked and with some enduring ambiguity that he would have embraced.
Blixen never fully came to share Kierkegaard's faith. She spoke often against the "poisonous tradition of dualism" in Christianity, the tendency to "divorce the sensual from the spiritual." The culinary pleasures of the meal—from wine to turtle soup—soothe the body and soul, inspiring reconciliation as readily as they awaken a repressed appetite. If nothing else, this film blends the sensory and the spiritual: the early cinematography, full of vibrant shades in the cold dawn, the wind-tossed grasslands and forbidding splendor of the Jutland bluffs suggest that the strict Lutherans enjoy an austere beauty in their simple lives that sets the stage for the visual splendor of the extravagant feast. The supper is no mere symbol or allusion to the Christian Eucharist: the camera lingers long and patiently on each course of the meal, as we watch the characters' moral awakening as the wine and food do their magic.
In time, Blixen’s life would imitate her art. Two years after “Babette’s Feast” was first published in America, the author was hosting her own “theological dinners,” filling the room with Lutherans and Catholics, as well as literary critics, agnostics and friends. Always the contrarian, Blixen had spent her life deriding the secure believer and self-confident skeptic alike, but now late in life she appears to have approached these dinners with an open spirit, willing to be the “detached spectator” ready to hear of the logic of faith. But that assurance never came. “I have really honestly sought to understand [Christianity],” she wrote to critic Johannes Rosendahl after one dinner, “but any real understanding in a connected sense I never achieved.” A storyteller with her feet in two cultures, she could not come to accept the literature of the Hebrew prophets, poets and chroniclers as more authoritative than others.
Righteousness and Mercy
In many respects, the keynote for the film is the community's rediscovery of their aged minister's teaching that "righteousness and mercy shall meet" and "righteousness and bliss shall kiss." Ironcially, this creed had become dusty, mere platitude, until some non-puritanical outsiders—those most feared by the minister—make their entrance into the story. The Catholic Babette is clearly one catalyst, but so is the world-weary General Lowenhielm, who emerges as the most vocal interpreter or philosopher in the story. The film lets us form our own conclusions about whether the General's musings are merely signs of an older man's momentary nostalgia or the profound moral epiphanies of a seasoned life.
Without Lowenheilm, of course, Babette would not have the witness necessary to confirm her extraordinary skills. But, in a eerie and unnerving way, the film does not fully signal to us just how much Babette understands the brutal irony of her victory. There is a fierce subtext in this redemptive meal: General Lowenhielm, so vital as the interpreter of Babette’s art, was once in the service of General Galliffet. It was Galliffet, Lowenhielm recalls, who once claimed that the only woman worth fighting a duel for was the female chef of the Café Anglais. And it was Galliffet, history tells us, who was the “butcher of the Communards,” the officer most responsible for the horrific wave of recriminations that took the lives of Babette’s husband and child. As a Communard, Babette had been a chef in the high style and elegance of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, and her escape to Jutland occurs in late 1871, just after Prussian forces humiliated the Emperor, supplanted his regime with the Third Republic, and massacred as many as 25,000 of the Emperor’s followers. Axel’s film reveals a softer, but still sad Babette, full of melancholy and mystery. But when she admits that she will not return to France, despite her lottery prize, she is not merely admitting that she has no one to return home to but also that she is, in the Republic’s eyes, an uncaptured terrorist.
Does Babette ever truly understand whom she serves? Only at one moment in the film, when she first arrives, do we hear even a slight mention of Galliffet's name. If she does truly know of Lownhielm's tie to her husband's death, then her stern-eyed, stoical demeanor at the end masks her painful discovery that a tragic shadow has emerged to cloud her long-awaited triumph. Or, we may even have reason to see that the act of grace embedded in this last supper is not simply genial, tender and humorous, but self-denyingly heroic. At the end of this quiet satire is just a hint of what the imitation of Christ truly requires—not just gratitude, but something like revolutionary forgiveness.