This is the second time that the movie Babette’s Feast has revealed my abysmal gaps in knowledge. The first was when I accidentally caught the movie on TV — I thought I had ‘discovered’ an overlooked jewel that the rest of the world had ignored, not realizing that it had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and that the rest of the world was ahead of me by several years. The second time was recently when I learned, again accidentally, that the movie was based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. How could I not know that?!! Regardless, both the movie and the story (now that I have made the effort to find the story and read it — and, believe me, it was an effort!) ‘speak to me’ on so many levels that I could spend decades tracking down and documenting the various responses I have to the many facets of this gem of a movie.
The plot is simple — it is, after all, taken from a short story: two old-maid sisters living a circumscribed life in a barren town on the Scandinavian coast take in a refugee from the counterrevolutionary upheaval in 1871 Paris, who then becomes their cook and housekeeper. The three women toddle along for over a decade, doing good deeds, sans husbands, sans children. Until Babette, the French maid-of-all-work, comes into a bit of money via the lottery and all hell breaks loose. Literally, in the minds of the Protestant fundamentalists who make up the congregation of the late minister father of the two sisters.
Babette’s Feast is being shown at the Museum as part of the ongoing ‘Film and Society’ series and, yes, there is a feast. And, yes, there is a lot of food. And, yes, it is a connoisseur’s delight. But the feast is only the foundation and the ‘house’ that rises around it has multiple floors and enough hidden closets to please the most devout Freudian. Of course, the issues that drew me in when I first saw the movie and which warmed me even more with the lovely language of the short story are the ones that relate to my own life: 1) the joy/responsibility of being an artist even without public acknowledgment of one’s artistry and 2) the possibility of women living good, decent, fulfilling, satisfying lives on their own. But it seems to me that the overarching theme of the story, the deeper question that it tries to answer, is: Is there such a thing as a wrong choice? In the movie Unfaithful (2002), the character played by Olivier Martinez corrects his staid, domesticated lover (Diane Lane) when she claims to have done something ‘wrong’: ‘There is no right or wrong,’ he tells her. ‘There is what we do and what we don’t do.’ And this sentiment is echoed by the soldier’s speech at the end of Babette’s dinner, words paraphrased from the old church dean, Soren Kierkegaard, and Psalm 85, which reads in part: “await mercy in confidence and receive it in gratitude.” God is merciful and life is not an either/or proposition.
As a writer, I chuckle at critics and scholars who try to guess what is ‘meant’ by the symbols, etc., used in fiction writing, who try to get inside the heads of authors/artists to ascertain their thoughts while they are creating, to determine what goes on during the creation process. What goes on, at least in my experience, is that the writer is too busy searching for just the right word, deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, arranging and re-arranging to do too much worrying about what it all means. What makes an artist an artist is the magic that happens while you’re doing the mechanics — the ‘accidental’ connections made between various parts of the story and between the story and society in general. It then becomes the pleasure of the reader to find these symbols and connections — and they will always be the ones that most relate to their own circumstances — and use them to add value, to quiet fears, to illuminate the mysteries in their own lives. And readers will always find things in the story of which the author had absolutely no conscious awareness. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the creation, the doing. What matters to Babette is that she has again handled the tools of her trade and luxuriated in turning simple ingredients into a life-changing event — the ultimate in alchemy. What matters is that she has seen what she can do, has proved to herself — even if to no one else — that she is an artist . . . and a great one.
Most reviewers of either the book or the movie assume that Babette goes back to cooking ale soup and split cod and that her life in France is, for her, buried forever. I don’t think so. The genie is out of the bottle and it will be difficult to get it back in again. The sisters, her employers, ostensible heads of the church founded by their father, know what she is and have found, through her, what they themselves are made of. The townspeople have learned (even if they try to deny it after they have sobered up) that indulging the senses can open up the soul, allowing peace and tranquility and joy to replace distrust and bitterness and ill feeling. This is not going to change; it is not going away. There are different expectations of Babette now and I think she will do her best to live up to them, even if all she has to work with are dried fish and stale beer.
One of my favorite ‘food movies’ is Chocolat, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. It too is set in a dreary, repressed small town but it is a fairy-tale of a movie and so it requires a happy ending. The final scenes of the movie grant every wish: the stodgy, repressed mayor is released from his self-imposed bindings to enjoy both food and a new love; a traumatized housewife who is regularly beaten by her husband finds the strength and courage to start a new life; a grandmother and grandson find a new bond; and Vianne (Binoche) finally decides to stay in one place and take a chance on life with her gypsy-pirate (Depp). At the end, they are all dancing in the town square, eating well, loving well, and living well.
In Babette’s Feast, we do not get the same in-depth view of the individual trials and tribulations of the congregation and there is no deus ex machina tying up of loose ends, no happily ever afters: the white knights do not show up to rescue the three women. The women continue on their own, the town remains cold and distanced from the modern world. But I do think that after the feast, after the last supper, there is more dancing in the streets . . . or at least more humming under one’s breath. To paraphrase Ron Hansen in Writers at the Movies, never underestimate the intoxicating effect that the fine arts can have on those who have learned to pay attention.
You can view the movie at the Museum of Art & Archaeology on Thursday, November 4, at 7:00 p.m. You can read the story in Anecdotes of Destiny, a short story collection by Isak Dinesen published in 1958.
Published by J. C. Crook, 11/1/10