For years, I've been told that BABETTE'S FEAST was one of those must-watch films, and so, like film-lemming that I am, I put it on the Netflix queue and gave it a shot. With the new semester starting tomorrow, I'd love to say that our collective film-watching time won't go into decline, but who's to say? With that, I'm trying to get in some real heavies at the end of Christmas break, including CITY OF GOD, which Paste magazine rated the best movie of the decade, and, by all accounts a real downer.
For the first hour of the film, I wasn't convinced that this movie deserved any of the hype accorded to it. A fairly minimalist film, set in 19th century Denmark, in a small village on the coast, BABETTE tells the tale of a woman sent to board with two sisters, elderly daughters of a beloved departed village minister. The daughters, because of their belief in the austere religious life, had each pursued the path of devotion over against one rooted in temporal pleasures, of beauty and the arts. Thankfully, director Gabriel Axel had the good sense to not resort to the ridiculous religious stereotypes these kinds of setups usually engender. Exhibit A: most of Stephen King's books where the minister is a meglomaniacal puritan.
By contrast, the daughters and the rest of their friends (fellow congregants of the late minister), band together for purity's sake, seeking the kingdom of God, purifying the flesh for the sake of the soul. Enter Babette, a refugee chef from France, sent by one of the daughters' long-lost suitors. Babette is taken in by the kindly, aged sisters, where all is well for a time, until Babette receives news she's won 10,000 francs, prompting fears that Babette will leave them and return to France. Babette's assumed departure coinsides with the 100th birthday of the sisters' father, which Babette--as a thank you for their kindness--asks to cater. Over Christmas, one of my wife's brothers cooked a meal like the one displayed here, and in that eating, food becomes less nourishment than art form, less time than pure event.
The crux comes when the congregation, gathering to celebrate the minister's life, is faced with a dilemna: the meal promises to be lush, lavish, and extravagant, while their salvation is tied to austerity and piety--the lust of the eyes against the love of the immaterial; the sensuality of the stomach against the love of God. What is to be done?
In Catholic theology, which drenches this film, the sacramental life is that which proclaims that material realities can in fact be experiences of God's grace, that we are visibly transformed through the partaking of the physical good gifts of God. As such, there need be no competition between physical and temporal pursuits, for the love of God transforms the physical pursuits in a way that one can do all manner of things toward God, loving God in and through them. Conversely, physical pleasure reaches a limit it cannot rightly transgress without being made perfect by the spiritual, such that normal activities, when undertaken in the love of God and for the sake of God, find the perfection they were always meant for.
I won't spoil the ending, because it really was a wonderful half-hour, subtle and delicate in the execution. Too often, these kinds of films wind up becoming ham-handed morality tales or preaching exhibitions against religion, but I loved that the central message is that the enjoyment of the goodness of creation is not opposed to the love of God, but in fact, enables it. Good food, good film, good friends do not detract us from the love of God, but in fact create the conditions under which communion of the soul with God can happen.
4 Turtle soups out of 5. I take one bowl back for general pacing of the film (which left me watching this solo while my wife snoozed), but I'll be darned if soliloquies in the last 15 minutes on mercy and truth won't stay with me for days to come.