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.