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A Reflection on Babette's Feast

In: Film and Music

Submitted By francoimps
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Babette’s Feast is about two pious aging sisters living an extreme sense of Lutheranism in a small, isolated northern village; their very simple and mundane form of living is challenged when a French civil war refugee, Babette, knocks on their doorstep with a letter from Papin, the world renowned Opera Singer, who in fact was fairly astonished and infatuated by one of the sisters during his initial visit decades ago. The father of the two sisters was a delusional preacher, who believed in the ludicrous idea that for one to attain eternal salvation, one must renounce all physical and sensual pleasure life has to offer them, something that the sisters follow with the most unwavering dedication. Who knew a Stranger from the city could change all that through a 7-course meal.

The film centralized on its most prominent image: Food. No image could better fit comparing the joyless austerity of the Lutheran sect of the sisters, Martine and Philippa to what is coming to them after the dinner celebration than the meals. Before Babette’s presence is felt, the village lived a very monotonous, dull and repetitious lifestyle. The sky is gray, the sea even grayer. The sisters sit indoors to eat their usual bowls of dried fish and dull brown mush with the most horrible excuse for bread one has ever seen. As viewers will soon find out, the food is the perfect measuring apparatus of change around the village.

Throughout the film, viewers see the daily fare of dried fish cut in half, hanging just outside the drying racks in the village, a constant reminder of local colorless and predictable existence. The dried fish represented the dull and archaic Lutheranism sect led by Martine and Philippa. The dryness of the fish symbolized the old, conservative and insignificant belief that paradoxically hinders their faith. The dried fishmeal usually served with mush and bread juxtaposes the grand and colorful French dinner Babette has prepared and shows the obvious transcendental occurrence after the meal.

Another significant event was the washing of the windows from the outside. In an aesthetic-seeking gesture that sets her apart from everyone else in the village, she washes the windows of the cottage of the sisters to let the light and beauty of the outside world into the dark interior. It symbolized Babette’s disposition and influence on the village, with how she saw and embraced life in contrast to the villagers. Unlike the villager’s task of breaking away from physical and sensual pleasure, Babette’s view on the matter was the exact opposite, by bringing light into the dark “interior” of the village. Babette was also purposely washing outside the house to show that she was an outsider with different ideals and beliefs. Inside the house were the two sisters, the perfect representation of the absurd belief of the village people. In this scene, she is trying to breakthrough the dirty, thick darkness that seals them from the light of the outside world in order of transformative transcendence.

During the last few minutes, the camera focused on the candlelight snuffed out in the end. It not only declared the end of the feast, but also showed Babette’s final testament as an artist. The sudden snuffing of the light showed how she was able to fulfill and satisfy her guests through the transcendence she was able to provide the community. It shows the influence she shared to cause a positive change. She was able to provide the love and light, through her art, that could change a community’s cognizance on faith.

During the dinner, viewers watch the amusement as the pious sisters alongside their trusty followers—twelve total at the table—attempt to suppress all delight in holy silence, speaking of anything except the mesmerizing dinner in front of them—but one guest is not bound by their strict code: the man who had once been Martine’s suitor decades ago, now a wealthy and well-decorated military man. Lorens provides culinary commentary on the course meal, mixing his expression of amazement with the knowledgeable analysis of someone who has been in the fanciest of places. It is through his presence that the film is able to provide words to express the delight and quality of the meal. He serves as the commentary, in contrast to the ignorant diners, who have sworn not to speak of the meal, but also lack the terminology to talk about it. Lorens Loewnhielm had a significant role to play because he was the contrast needed to compare the naïve villagers. There were certain scenes wherein the officer would demonstrate the proper way of consuming a specific dish while the villagers watched and mimicked every move. It was through his presence that viewers were able to see the comparison of someone who knew what he was doing and eating and someone who had just tasted it for the first time. Without him, the film wouldn’t have been able to show the incompetence of the isolated northern villagers in the lines of a fine dining experience.

After the dinner, everyone is left satisfied and the sisters find Babette to congratulate her a job well done. Babette explains to them that she was once the Head Chef of Cafi Anglais in Paris, one of the most popular and prestigious food centers in the world. The sisters expected a goodbye from their sweet maid but she announces that she was not to return to France ever. She explains how she spent all her lottery winnings on that dinner she prepared. She also came to realize that she did not have anyone to return to. The sisters could not fathom that idea of her spending all that money on a dinner for twelve.

The saying, “An artist is never poor” is one of the lessons it is trying to show. One way or another, Babette has finally proven her powers, performed her art. She was reminded of that sense of gratification when she served and satisfied her customers at the Cafi Anglais. Babette mentioned her old friend Papin, who was also an artist and in constant pursuit of excellence (e.g. trying to mold Philippa into becoming one of the world’s greatest opera singers) and in bringing pleasure to its audiences. When Martine mentioned of her being poor, she replied that an “artist was never poor.” Her feast renewed friendships, rekindled love lives, and reincarnated the harmony of a community. It was through her art of cooking that the community transcended into something better. She transformed a dinner into a kind of love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite. An artist who is able to do what he/she was born to do will never be “poor” no matter how financially challenged they may be because it is only by doing something you love that you are eternally happy and never in any sense, poor.

This film definitely surprised my cinematic culture. It wasn’t something I expected—although I cant really blame anyone but the stereotypical movies I see on television or the movie cinemas. Babette’s Feast was a real eye opener for me because it showed how distinct European Genre is from Hollywood movies that most of us are familiar with. I admired the subtlety of sensuality that the film offered with the way it presented the French Cuisine and the different reactions of the characters. The film included vivid details on the many pleasures of food without anything sexual involved. The way it showed the contrast of things through its characters and food just shows how distinctive the mindset of directors are from different regions. It was a food Film but adding something more. I find it amazing how European Films such as Babette’s Feast can appear in a way but represent another. The film’s symbolic essence of the Last Supper through Babette’s Feast just showed the great gap between European Film and Hollywood Film because it was through this film that I realized the depth and magnitude that only European Film can bring to the table compared to the flimsy, oversimplified plots of American movies.

This film has definitely made me a believer of the power of art. Gabriel Axel was able to change my idea of cinema, by not only concentrating on how entertaining it is but also bringing in something of a certain level of depth and cognitive reasoning. The way he directed Babette’s Feast just showed how one can make simple into extraordinary.

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