A pair of never-married sisters attempt to keep true to the religious teachings of their father and maintain the health and spirit of remote Danish community he helped create, even at the cost of their own desires.
Writer(s): Gabriel Axel
Director: Gabriel Axel
Production Co.(s): Panorama Film A/S, Det Danske Filminstitut, Nordisk Film, Rungstedlundfonden
Adapted from: Babette's Feast (Short story included in the compilation Anecdotes of Destiny) by Karen Blixen (© 1958)
The Story on the Screen
In Babette's Feast, a pair of elderly never-married sisters, Filippa and Martine, attend to the physical and spiritual health of a remote 19th-century Danish coastal village established years before by their father—a Protestant minister who believed strongly in nurturing the spirit through self-denial. The villagers on whom they shower their good works are disciples of their father's teachings and knew him when he was alive. But with each passing year, they grow older, more feeble, more in need of care, and more distanced from his moderating influence, which kept in check the squabbles that might otherwise rise naturally between them.
Babette's Feast involves the story of elderly never-married sisters, Filippa and Martine, who shower their village with good works.
In a significant backstory segment, we-the-audience learn that when the sisters were young, both were bright and beautiful, and each had more than one chance to step away from their father and his teachings and to live life on her own. Aside from their many suitors within the village itself, each of whom were rebuffed by the father (who took a dim view of marriage and wanted to keep his daughters as personal helpers), such chances took the form of two male interlopers. For Martine, the temptation and opportunity to live her own life arrived in the person of Lorens, an undisciplined soldier who had been ordered by his superiors to spend time with his aunt, a pious old woman who lived in a mansion near the village and was well-known to (an well-liked by) the villagers. For Filippa, it appeared in the form of Achille Papin, a French opera singer who had come to the village for his health and, upon hearing her sing in church, had lauded her voice and offered his services as a tutor.
When the sisters were young, both were bright, beautiful, and the object of desire for suitors both within and without their village—each of whom were rebuffed by their father.
Although Martine seemed to be smitten by Lorens, as he was with her, she made no attempt to stop him when he departed the region of his own accord to pursue a more disciplined life as a soldier and to try to attain military greatness. And as much as Filippa seemed to enjoy her singing lessons with Achille, the enjoyment itself unnerved her, and she had them stopped by her father.
It is these two decisions—to let Lorens leave without protest and to reject Achille and his lessons—that leave the sisters in their old age with only each other to keep alive their father's teachings and take care of the villagers.
Long after their father has died, the sisters take on a servant, Babette.
Thirty-five years later, and long after their father has died, the sisters are visited on a stormy night by Babette, a refugee from a civil war taking place in Paris. She arrives bearing a letter of recommendation from Papin and asks to become their servant, requesting only food and shelter for her efforts. Out of pity and in the spirit of Christian charity, the sisters grant her request and welcome her into their home—a decision that proves beneficial to themselves and the village at large. Not only does the assistance of Babette free them to help the villagers in other ways, but Babette is a very good cook and runs a smart household, which saves them money.
When Babette wins the lottery, Babette sets out to cook the sisters a "real French dinner."
After 14 years of faithful service to the sisters, Babette receives a letter from her only remaining connection in Paris—a person who renews her lottery ticket every year. The letter informs her that she has won the lottery and will receive a prize of 10,000 francs. Instead of returning to Paris with her winnings, however, Babette asks the sisters for permission to cook them a "real French dinner" in honor of the centennial anniversary of the birth of their father. The idea frightens them slightly, given their predilection toward self-denial, but they allow it out of respect and charity toward Babette.
When the elements used to prepare the dinner arrive at their home (including many bottles of wine) the sisters begin to worry that they have committed a great error and allowed a evil to enter their lives in the form of the sensual indulgence of the meal. They appeal to the villagers to forgive them and are assured that none will appreciate the meal or speak well of it while they dine.
Fearing that they have opened their lives to evil by allowing the oppulent dinner, the sisters entreat their fellow villagers to vow to keep silent and not show pleasure in eating the meal.
In addition to the villagers—of whom only eight remain—the guest list includes Lorens' aunt and Lorens himself, who is visiting her in the mansion. And partly because of the villagers' vow to keep silent on the meal, it is he alone who is able to appreciate the sumptuous sensuality of what they are eating—a meal cooked with the artistry he recognizes as that of a famous female head chef at the Café Anglais in Paris.
Despite the villagers' commitment, they relax and let down their guards, resulting in a camaraderie they have not enjoyed for a long time.
Despite the villagers' commitment to not express enjoyment for the meal, they begin to relax as it progresses and their wine glasses empty one after another. And with the relaxation comes the letting down of guards and a communal understanding that their squabbles have been petty and beneath them. By the end of the evening, they are gathered in the street outside, hands joined to form a circle and singing a hymn with a harmonious camaraderie that they have not felt in a very long time.
Behind the Scenery
Because Martine and Filippa act completely in concert throughout the tale of Babette's Feast, they may be considered to be a single dramatic unit (character) and to share the role of main character. Even though their early temptations take the form of two different men, their important decisions are spawned from the same fear of deviating from what has been presented to them as the appointed path. Nor do they differ in any of their actions or attitudes throughout the remainder of the tale. Consequently, they represent the rare case in which two characters together constitute the main character (and in doing so, they show themselves to be somewhat redundant).
Martine and Filippa act singly as a main character with a keep intent.
With respect to their shared type of intent, Martine and Filippa are keep characters, and their treasure concerns preserving their father's approach to spirituality and the health of the small community he founded. They are opposed early on in their attempt (in the backstory) by temptations in the forms of Lorens and Achille—and later by time itself, which has diminished the community through attrition. But the ultimate opposition arrives in the form of the sumptuous dinner created by Babette, which constitutes a direct assault on the Spartan nature of their lifestyle.
Although the tale is replete with conflicting oppositions—such as Heaven versus Earth, self-denial versus indulgence, and personal choice versus predestination—its issue is related to the type of intent of the main character pair and may be stated in broad terms as "maintaining devotion to an ideal at the cost of not fulfilling personal desires and needs." And although the storytellers do not take a strong position regarding whether doing so is advisable or inadvisable, the bittersweet nature of the ending allows us to lean decidedly to one side and state the proposition as:
- One should not attempt to maintain (keep true to) her devotion to an ideal at the cost of her own desires and needs, because success in the attempt will deny her the joy and satisfaction that pursuit of such fulfillment brings.
Near the end of the meal, Lorens delivers a brief speech in which he asserts that choices in life do not matter and that God alone controls what happens and what is granted to every person. When the evening ends, he shares an intimate moment with Martine in which he extols her virtues and vows that she will always be with him in spirit. And even though he expresses admiration for what she has done, we-the-audience feel the bittersweet pain of their separation—two ennobled souls who could support each other in every way if they would only have allowed themselves to be together.
Finally, the sisters learn that Babette has spent all of her lottery winnings on the meal and plans to remain with them in the village rather than returning to Paris, where her skills would be appreciated and lauded. And that she prepared the meal merely to feel once more the joy of artistic creation.
The sisters succeed in their attempt to keep faithful to their father's ideals at the cost of their personal satisfaction.
Because the sisters stay true to their mission throughout, they may be said to succeed in their attempt to keep faithful to their father's ideals at the cost of their personal satisfaction. And although the storytellers seem to neither condemn nor condone their shared endeavor, the bittersweet sense of lost opportunity that fills the final moments, Lorens' acquiescence to the idea of predestination, and the fact that the sisters are not greatly challenged in their attempt may leave us-the-audience disappointed in the outcome, in which case, Babette's Feast may be classified as a succeed/disappointed story.