Holiness II

film 4 of 4

Babette’s Feast

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 31, 2015

Set in a blustery, austere, Danish coastal town, Babette’s Feast is both a wry comedy of manners and a sophisticated, even moving attempt at the reconciliation of religious devotion and sensuous satisfaction. The story focuses on two spinsterly Lutheran sisters, Martina and Philippa, who have taken care of the members of their small community for as long as they can remember—in their own sparse, puritan fashion. Though sincerely selfless, their existence has come to seem rather dull and even joyless. All this changes when a Parisian refugee appears at their door and asks to be taken in as their servant. In quiet, subtle ways, Babette begins to show this small community of faith a more vibrant, compassionate, and satisfying life. After winning a French lottery, she single-handedly finances and fixes a feast in honour of the town’s dead minister. The local parish, however, is skeptical and fears the event will become a worldly distraction from their devout routines.

The contrast between Babette’s free spiritedness and the strict lifestyle of the community neatly mirrors the two extremes of most religious films. Frequently, spiritual matters have been examined in either cold, alienating art films that are not widely accessible or emotionally engaging; or in thunderous Hollywood epics of such magnitude and grandeur that the audience is swept away in a flood of didactic images. (Director Gabriel Axel is conscious of the contrast; the Norwegian setting of Isak Dinesen’s short story is changed to Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, where Carl Dreyer’s Ordet [q.v.] was shot. Note also the strategic use of key actors from Dreyer’s late films.) Babette’s Feast quietly shows the viewer a harmonious balance between these two extremes. The tension at the dinner table as the stiff Lutherans attempt to suppress their instincts to relax and enjoy the food is marvelously released through humor and their eventual realization that appreciating the pleasures in life isn’t necessarily sinful. It is in finding this blend of reverent and jubilant attitudes that the film becomes powerful, and presents a way in which the human experience can be both joyful and significant.