In its relatively short runtime, Babette’s Feast presents a vast array of love, spanning all types and varieties. There’s a father’s love for his daughters, a suitor’s love of a potential partner, a love of music, a love of religion and, of course, a love of good food. Babette’s Feast explores how all these avenues of expression, any of which have spawned countless films, are all inter-related expressions of this one human idea.
For two sisters, these strands of love form the story of their life. Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) live in a small town in Denmark where their father presides over a Protestant church. The tales of the suitors of their youth, none of which ever lead to fruition, and their later years where they direct their love and devotion to the local poor. But after their years of servitude, an unexpected visitor, Babette (Stéphane Audran), arrives from France with an unusual proposition to serve the two women without pay.
The title of the film alludes to a feast that makes the last arc of this story. In actuality, the true feast is the deep draughts this film takes into the love that surrounds and defines these two women. The women are both loved and engaged in loving the community around them. Deeply connecter to their father and the ties of the Church, their outpouring of love is tied to their religious beliefs.
Therefore, the feast of Babette becomes problematic for these women later in the film when they misinterpret it as a brash pursuit of pleasure, a vice. What they fail to see is that Babette’s Feast is her own sort of religion, a way of expressing her devotion, love and passion to those around her, a different kind of service than the one the sisters have spent their lives pursuing.
And while the film shows a lush love of food, it also weaves in a fantastic love of music. The best scene of the movie is when suitor Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) and one of the daughters perform a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Besides being a lovely moment of music, the song itself is an expression of love that speaks to the situations and differences between the two and why, sadly, their different love of the same thing will inevitably keep them from loving one another.
For Papin, the love of music is something that must fully be achieved on the stage, shared with as many as possible. It’s his hope to take this small town daughter and make her a star. But her love of music is rooted in devotion and worship of God, and while the prospect of music is tempting, it distorts her personal reasons for sing.
These are only two examples of the great loves of the film. It glazes over the gracious care of the poor and the legacy of love of a father passes onto his children. It ignores the simple servitude of Babette that never imposes in or demands of the sisters she serves. It skirts around the entire subplot of a military man who displaces his love of a women to marry his career.
And while all these portraits of love in Babette’s Feast are worth reflection, its best experienced firsthand. This is just a taste of the beauty and magnificence of the displays of love Babette’s Feast offers. It’s a film that induces a spirit of love, showing how many of life’s squabbles and troubles melt away in the face of love and how displaced love can cause all sorts of problems.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing