You Really Ought To See Babette’s Feast

Watching a movie is tricky business when you’re dating a filmmaker. It’s never just a casual, “Let’s just throw something in the DVD player” kind of deal; it’s usually a: “Would you rather watch Wild Strawberries or Piranha 3-D?” Luckily, my resident filmmaker is in New York editing his own movie and I have total dominion over the remote control these days. Last night, I found myself clicking through the Criterion collection on Hulu Plus and my cursor made its way over to a movie that I had always meant to see but never found the time to: Babette’s Feast.

It’s funny how we often know the things that are good for us and yet we still avoid them. Three servings of fruit a day. Exercise. I include Babette’s Feast in this group because, just on the surface, it sounds like homework.

What you quickly discover as you watch it, though, is that it’s not homework at all. The movie is funny and fun. It most closely resembles a fable: two sisters, the daughters of a preacher in Jutland, win the hearts of a general and an opera singer without consummating their affection. Through an unexpected series of events, the sisters grow old and a stranger shows up at their door: Babette, a French woman escaping violence in Paris where her husband and son were killed.

What follows is too lovely to spoil but, suffice it to say, there’s a feast. The feast functions in a similar way as the meal at the end of Big Night (one of my other favorite food movies) in that it illustrates how carefully made food can propel us into the realm of the sublime. It also brings people together in a way that’s difficult to define for those who’ve never cooked a big, intimate meal for friends and loved ones.

What’s fascinating about Babette’s Feast is how generous it is with its characters. On the one hand, you have the completely selfless sisters who dedicate their lives to taking care of others, living their ascetic existence, subsisting almost entirely on bread soup. Then you have Babette who, we discover, is a real sensualist: she believes that the pathway to the soul is through the body. For her, good food and good wine celebrate God’s glory as much as the deepest prayer. The movie doesn’t tip its hat either way.

My favorite moment is when Babette’s ingredients begin to arrive from Paris and one of the sisters points to a bottle and asks, “Surely that’s not wine?” Babette, horrified, says: “It’s a Clos de Vougeot 1845 from Chez Philippe on rue Montorgeuil.” That exchange perfectly captures the conflict at the heart of the movie: on the one hand, the good-hearted sisters who believe in the value of temperance, on the other hand a good-hearted cook who believes in the value of indulgence. You can guess which way I lean but the movie made me see it from all sides. Plus: it made me hungry.

10 thoughts on “You Really Ought To See Babette’s Feast”

  1. Great post! I recently watched it again and it is still such a great movie. The Isak Dinesen original story is also excellent and the movie stayed very close to this source. Worth a read!

  2. I first watched this film in my 8th grade French class. The teacher must have been a foodie Francophile. I was neither at the time and found it quite boring, but I have since re-watched it as a foodie film minor. It was a true joy!

  3. Growing up, cooking and watching movies were the two activities my mother and I favored over most others, and those experiences with her – learning from her – had a profound impact on me and on the development of my tastes. In terms of film, her only rule was that I give whatever movie she had rented ten minutes before I decided whether or not I wanted to stay and watch. It’s to her taste in film that I never left, and I remember Babette’s Feast being one movie I thought I would particularly dislike that ended up being one of my favorites. I have a birthday coming up in a month and a day, and I had long decided to make your bouillabaisse for an intimate birthday meal with friends, but I recently decided against doing so. This post, however, reminded me of my love of Babette’s Feast and the joy that comes from cooking for those I love, so thank you for both of those gifts, Adam. I’ve been a longtime follower of your blog, and frankly, I never thought I’d receive anything more than excellent stories and recipes, but I’m so thankful that you’ve now given me much more than that, and I’m certain that my dinner guests next month will be thankful, too. ;) All my best, Adam.

  4. oooh. I am so very excited for this recommendation, and on huluplus, nonetheless! I was a wannabe film student before I ever got interested in food. You probably just saved me from pouting all night over being less of a draw for my husband’s evening entertainment than going to a college basketball game.

  5. One of the greatest food-related movies of all time. The final scene of the little drunken man saying “Hallelujah” is indelible. I often use it at the end of a great meal. I’m glad you found it.

  6. Such a great movie and – fun fact – is a semi-autobiographical account of Karen Blixen’s, (wrote Out of Africa), return to Europe after her luxurious African farm life went bust.

  7. Thanks for suggesting this movie. I’d never heard of it. Just watched it on Hulu and really enjoyed it.

  8. I saw this on the recommendation of a friend several years ago and thought the same thing: homework. But as I watched it, I absolutely loved it. I’m so glad you found and watched it.

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