21 August 2005

Babette's Feast

This is a lovely fairy tale of a movie. Most of the characters are archetypes—two beautiful, saintly sisters (as beautiful in their old age as in their youth), a stern pastor, a suitor from the world of society, a suitor from the world of art, a sinning but well-meaning flock. Babette herself is not an archetype but a character, a person. Which makes her mysterious. You are never sure just what she’ll do (what everyone else does is entirely predictable).

The story takes place in a remote area of Denmark, in a small, pious community led and perhaps established by the sisters’ father, a pastor. The sisters, in spite of their beauty, remain spinsters, devoted to God and their father; and after their father’s death they continue his work, caring for the aging members of their dwindling community. Babette, a French refugee, arrives on their doorstep bearing a letter that attests to the hardships she has endured (her husband and son were murdered) and the fact that she “can cook.”

What follows shows this to be the understatement of the century. Her day-to-day contributions are appreciated—if little understood—by the sisters, but it’s the dinner referred to in the movie’s title that enables the sisters to understand they’ve been harboring an artist in their home.

Based on an Isak Dinesen story, Babette’s Feast is not only a literary pleasure, but a visual one. The Jutland village, with its cluster of cozy houses around a narrow and unpaved path, seems to arise out of nowhere, in a land of gray sky and gray ground. In the grocery, as Babette chooses among the colorful vegetables you wonder how far they must have traveled.

I thought I’d seen Babette’s Feast when the movie came out in 1987, but I was mistaken. If I had seen it, I wouldn’t have forgotten it.

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