Babette’s Feast

Just finished watching “Babette’s Feast” for the second time this week. I’m learning to appreciate slower moving films as I work my way down the Arts & Faith Top 100 list. The great thing about a slow, rich film like “Babette’s Feast” is that when you finish watching, you don’t feel as if you’ve lost brain cells in the process of viewing. It feels like you are getting up from a long experience of contemplating life and slowing down to appreciate the details. It isn’t like the typical American movie experience, in which you are visually assaulted with fast moving images and little coherence, thought or meaning.

This film is about grace. It takes place on a small island in Denmark, in which two elderly sisters (Martine and Philippe) are the spiritual caretakers of a small village, keeping the legacy of their father alive; the town’s former Lutheran minister. And though they are Lutheran, their lifestyle is very austere, somber and puritanical. The people of the village eat bread and fish and generally don’t do much else but walk around with great postures and blank faces. They are serious about not enjoying anything too much, for the sake of their religion. There are so many scenes in which they are singing beautiful hymns with dead expressions.

In his youth, a young Danish lieutenant by the name of Lorens Lowenhielm is sent to the village by his family. He has been gambling too much and has incurred some serious debts. He has been sent to this island to think about the direction of his life in hopes that he will gain a new perspective and change the direction his life is headed. While he is there, he falls in love with Martine, but becomes keenly aware of his unworthiness and depravity. He leaves her with the parting words that life is hard and cruel and that there are things in this world that are impossible. And with that, he vows to leave Martine forever. He swears to himself that he will live a life of putting his career first and one day he “will cut a brilliant figure in the world of prestige.”

There are so many delectable details about this film. The main plotline centers around a refugee from Paris during the time of upheaval in France. She lives with the two sisters as their housekeeper, cooking their bland fish and eating their stale bread. She has a secret, that she was once a gourmet chef at a famous restaurant in Paris. One day, a letter arrives from France, informing her that she has won a lottery and the grand prize is 10,000 francs. She starts planning a French meal to serve the sisters and their friends in the town. They are reluctant to agree to this; they would rather serve their friends fish and bread but Babette convinces them. Long story short, the ingredients begin to be delivered by boat and it is clear that Babette has a sumptuous banquet in mind. This horrifies the town-folk. They solemnly swear to each other that they will eat the dinner out of love for Martine and Philippe but will not let themselves enjoy it.

Lorens, by now a general, happens to be visiting his aunt who is invited to the feast, and he comes along with her. This is what haunts me about this film. The character of Lorens. He is old now, and has “cut a brilliant figure in the world of prestige.” He has accomplished everything he set out to accomplish. He is well-off, a celebrated general, but as he dresses in front of the mirror, he quotes Ecclesiastes – “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He sees the younger version of himself sitting at a chair and delivers the following speech to his younger counterpart:

I have found everything you dreamed of
And satisfied you ambition.
But to what purpose?
Tonight we two must settle our score.
You must prove to me that the choice I made was the right one.

As he rides to the dinner in his aunt’s cab, he asks her:

Could many years of victories result in defeat?

And here you have one of the most compelling character I have ever come across. A decorated general in full regalia, broken and humbled by the meaninglessness of all of his victories. His life is shallow and hollow and he knows it. He knows he is going to see the woman he has spent his life secretly trying to prove himself worthy of, and there is only a distant sadness in his eyes. He is going to this dinner expecting dreary fair. He has no idea there is a master chef preparing the meal.

Once he arrives and joins the dour-faced saints at the table, a genuinely hilarious situation ensues. Of all the guests, only he has the experience of such food and knows its value. He recognizes the rare wines that are served. He marvels at the feast, while the pious prunes he is sharing the meal with are pretending the meal is nothing special. He holds up his glass and rightly identifies the year and the vineyard. The townspeople, terrified of letting themselves enjoy the meal, only answer with non-sequitor platitudes.

But as they slowly taste the exquisite feast, they begin to loosen up. They stop spouting flowery religious catchphrases and begin to smile more and more. Finally, Lorens is moved by the unexpectedness of the glorious feast to stand and give a speech.

Mercy and truth have met together.
Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.
Man, in his weakness and shortsightness,
believes he must make choices in this life.
He trembles at the risks he takes.
We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance.
There comes a time when your eyes are opened.
And we come to realize that mercy is infinite.
We need only await it with confidence,
and receive it with gratitude.
Mercy imposes no conditions.
And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us,
and everything have rejected has also been granted.
Yes, we even get back what we rejected.
For mercy and truth are met together;
and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

It is after this speech that the rest of the dinner guests begin to confess wrongs done to each other and forgive each other with light hearts. As the feast comes to an end with an outrageously expensive champagne, Lorens leaves to take his aunt home. But on the way out, he speaks to his heart’s true love, Martine. He tells her he will always be with her in his heart and that this feast has taught him “that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

There are other plotlines and aspects to this film that I may go into for other posts. But it is Lorens’ story that lingers on after seeing this film twice. The gradual transformation from a weary man who has won every battle but lost his soul, to an astonished recipient of grace and truth is beautifully portrayed.

“Babette’s Feast” is a feast for the senses and the spirit, and this is the brilliance of it. As I watched this sumptuous feast and observed the reaction of the characters to it, I found that I was experiencing the same grace, the same joy, the same astonishment. Because this is the gospel at its deepest level – a banquet given by God at great personal cost to a world that is sad, weary, shallow and hollow. The grace of God is meant to be savored, but we are distracting ourselves with so many things, even religious piety. Will we give up the charade and open ourselves to the unexpected grace and deep joy that God is serving? This is the question this beautiful film left me with.

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~ by shardsofeternity on March 28, 2010.

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