Bliss and Righteousness: A Match Made in the Kitchen - Spiritual Fulfillment in Babette’s Feast (1987)
by Brady Gilliam
The French refugee Babette, secretly the once-great chef of the Parisian Café Anglais, works as a maid for unmarried sisters Martine and Phillipa in their remote Danish village during the later nineteenth century. The austere sisters are daughters of the late founder of a tiny Lutheran sect and have taken on his role in leading their puritanical community, which, much to their dismay, has begun to disintegrate as a result of feuds between its members. When Babette wins ten thousand francs in the lottery and requests to cook a “real French dinner” for the congregation in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of its founder’s birth, Martine and Philippa agree, assuming that Babette will afterwards return to France as a wealthy woman. However, as a stream of exotic and luxurious food begins to arrive from France, the sisters and their flock are filled with consternation for the coming feast, fearing it will be a wickedly pleasurable “witches’ Sabbath” that will the strict asceticism to which they subscribe. Strangely, the meal, though decadent in the extreme, does just the opposite: it kindles a religious revival for the community and brings them closer to one another and to God. Through his portrayal of the joy and reconciliation brought to the previously sullen Lutheran community by Babette’s sumptuous feast, writer-director Gabriel Axel argues that the most genuine spiritual fulfillment comes not from sensory deprivation and restraint, but from an appreciation of the material world as God’s own work of art.
Pre-feast, the little congregation has nearly reached its breaking point. The members have grown old and resentful of one other, held together only by Martine and Philippa’s waning tenacity. Their gatherings are entirely devoid of sincere religious passion: the sacred peace is constantly marred by accusations and sharp-tongued retorts, any semblance of joy erased by a dour conviction about the evils of pleasure. In fact, when the feast begins, the guests have taken a vow of silence in the hopes of preserving their virtue against the temptation of Babette’s French cuisine; they will say nothing of the food, rejecting all sensual enjoyment and speaking only praises to God. However, as the unbelievably delicious food and drink loosen their resolve, the guests find themselves unable to resist its allure. Their eyes close in relish and surrender, their mouths form nervous smiles, and past disputes are slowly forgiven as the guests relax into a fellowship lubricated by fine wine. Ironically, when they abandon their religious self-discipline, the sectarians arrive at the most powerful religious experience they have encountered since the death of their beloved pastor. The feast becomes a celebration of gratitude for the bounty given by God, and for friendship, during a fleeting but beautiful life on His earth. They recount stories of their founder’s good works, sing hymns, and discuss the life that awaits them beyond the grave.
During the climactic feast scene, Babette steps fully into her symbolic role as the film’s Christ figure, divine giver of both life and absolution through a sacrifice represented with food. The camera focuses on her expert hands as she lovingly prepares each dish; her art represents, indeed is, the work of God’s own hands. Thus, in appreciating Babette’s feast, the twelve guests (like the twelve disciples at the Last Supper) do not offend God, but please him. Furthermore, the salvation they gain from the feast is bought at a great price. She relinquishes every bit of the ten thousand francs she has won in the lottery, and with it the chance at any future other than one of servitude, for the opportunity to fulfill her most vital purpose. She alone – the servant – has the power to bring renewal to the sectarian community through the sacrifice of her own future. In this way, the Catholic Babette embodies the unconditional grace of Luther’s Protestant Christ, demonstrating her burgeoning connection with the Danes’ culture and religion. The purifying power of Babette’s feast evokes the Christian ritual of communion: the guests eat and drink of her sacrifice, and through consumption reaffirm their community ties, ultimately achieving redemption and a deep spiritual fulfillment. As General Loewenhielm so poignantly proclaims, “That which we have chosen is given to us, and that which we have refused is also granted us… Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” The feast may be decadently toothsome, but the harmony it brings elevates the guests’ humanity and reaffirms their religious ties.
Babette’s Feast. Dir. Gabriel Axel. Perf. Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, and Birgitte Federspie. Orion Classics, 1987. iTunes. Web. 5 February 2015.