Last night I watched Babette's Feast, a bowl of luscious Rainer cherries in one hand, a nursing baby in the other. This film is about appetite.
The opening scene shows a small isolated 19th century village on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark — bleak and gray, yet enchanting. The ocean is close — fish hang drying, slit and bloody. The viewer soon learns that these fish are a staple for this simple community and the family that forms the center of the film — two beautiful sisters and their father, pastor of a small close-knit sect. The pastor is beloved by the community and, though not unkind, is severe, warding off potential suitors with the argument that his daughters are his right and left hands for serving God. The sisters themselves, in fear, deny love when it almost captures them. They instead spend their lives in service to their neighbors, feeding the poor and feeble with simple fare — soaking and boiling the hard, dried fish and making a thick, unappetizing brown soup by boiling dry bread in ale.
A cloaked figure arrives unexpectedly one night during a thunderstorm. She will change the appetite of the entire community. Babette is an exhausted traveler from France. Her husband and son had been shot in the civil war. She has nowhere to go and no ties left to France, except her annual lottery ticket.
Babette finds refuge as a housekeeper with the sisters and takes over their duties of cooking for the poor. She bargains with the local merchants, buying onions and fish, using herbs and making the food tastier. Babette serves the sisters for fourteen years. Then she receives post from France. She has won the lottery.
Around the same time the sisters plan to celebrate their late father's 100th birthday. Although they envision only a small gathering with coffee at the end, Babette clutches the gold cross hanging at her breast and proposes a real French dinner. The sisters hesitate but accept, and then are horrified when shipments arrive containing the preparations. Such riches, such ostentation! It could only be the work of the devil.
The night of the feast, the parishioners gather beforehand to pray. It is obvious that the tight community has become quarrelsome and somewhat bitter in their later years.Their prayer? That God would protect them from the food! They make a pact among themselves not to talk about the food, not to let it affect them.
But it can't be helped. Babette's virtuosity washes over them in waves of wine and delicacies. With each course, another vintage. With each taste, a new world. It is a feast of feasts. Slowly, the faces relax and forgiveness begins flowing.
The simple village folk can hardly appreciate what is placed before them; they have no idea what they are tasting. But one man can — a worldly man, a general, a former admirer of one of the sisters. The general relishes the meal, expressing wonder at each new glass and dish, until finally one course suggests the famous female chef of the most famous Parisian restaurant —Cafe Anglais.
When the meal is over, Babette reveals that she is indeed that chef and that she spent her entire lottery fortune preparing the meal. She gave all, yet she was not sorry for having provided such a costly meal for a group of people without the capacity to properly enjoy it.
This meal also affects you, the viewer of the film. You want to be there. You want to dine with them. You call your spouse and ask for wine on the way home. You want a taste of what they're having — a meal that makes no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite, a meal Babette turned into a love affair. What are you having for dinner tonight?