By Krista Zobel
The 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast” is set in a bleak coastal village in mid -19th century Denmark. The story revolves around two spinster sisters, daughters of a Puritan pastor now long deceased. The village is populated by the elderly devout remnant of the pastor’s dwindling flock. Their lives are as austere as the setting — grey, bleak, cold, devoid of anything to tempt the senses. As the years pass, the villagers become more cantankerous, constantly recalling each other’s small offenses, keeping petty grudges alive.
One day, a small boat comes to shore with a woman bearing a letter of introduction to the two sisters from an acquaintance of decades past. The woman, Babette, is a refugee fleeing the violence of the counter-revolution in Paris. She needs a place to stay. Buried in the text of the lengthy letter is this simple sentence:
Babette can cook.
The sisters can’t pay her, but they allow her to stay with them in exchange for her assuming basic housekeeping and cooking duties. Babette cooks their simple meals for the next fourteen years, exactly as they like to be fed. Nourishment for the body with nothing sensuous to interfere with the soul.
Then, one day, Babette gets a letter from Paris. A friend has been buying her a lottery ticket every year for fifteen years, and she has won 10,000 francs. It is a fortune – enough for her to return to Paris and resume her life there. The sisters are sad to think of her leaving but are also happy for her good fortune.
Babette asks one favor of them: Would they allow her to cook them one real French meal before she goes? They exchange nervous glances and reluctantly agree.
On the evening of the feast, a dozen guests assemble, one of whom is a French general visiting his ancient aunt who is a member of the parish. The meal is brought out, course by course, wine by wine, dish by elegant dish. The parishioners have made a pact to say nothing about the food. They are going to eat it out of politeness, but not enjoy it. They quote Scripture to each other to bolster their resolve as they devour a feast fit for royalty: “Take no thought for yourselves, what you shall eat, what you shall drink…”
The French general is the only one not in on the pact. He is not one of them. He is an outsider and has the capacity to appreciate what is passing his lips. He informs the others of the pricelessness and rarity of each type of wine, each delicacy. The villagers reply with comments on the weather, meanwhile their mouths full of Babette’s succulent masterpieces.
By the end of the meal, the general has realized who the invisible chef in the kitchen must be. He had heard years ago of a woman, the most famous and sought-after chef in Paris, who had fled during the uprising. He said her food was legendary. “It is said when one eats her food, there is no difference between body and spirit. Both are ministered to.”
At the end of the meal, the general stands to his feet, overcome, and makes a speech about grace. He says, “Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude... Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
The villagers file out when the meal is over, pausing in the square to join hands in a smiling circle of friendship and sing a hymn together before parting ways and returning to their homes.
It is then that the sisters find out Babette is not leaving them. She has spent the entire 10,000 francs on that feast. She has no money and nowhere to go. Horrified, one of the sisters says, “You shouldn’t have given all you own for us.”
Babette answers, “It was not only for you.”
The first time I saw this movie, years ago, I saw that the feast was a metaphor for grace. Babette, at great cost to herself, was lavishing something undeserved and unappreciated upon those who had no capacity to recognize or receive it, purely out of love. But this time, years later, watching the movie again, I saw different things. I saw that Babette needed to cook that feast for herself as much as for the villagers. Her soul was languishing as much as theirs were, just in a different way, for different reasons. She needed to create.
The movie demonstrates the plight of the artist in our world as one who simultaneously occupies two realms. The artist lives both in the unbounded realm of possibility and in the much more limiting realm of pragmatism. There is a frustrating divide between what the artist has to offer to the world and what the world wants or expects to receive from the artist. This was Babette’s burden. For fourteen years, she hid away her extraordinary gift until she could bear it no longer. Babette tells the sisters, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.”
The movie also illuminates the burden the artist carries. The language of the film is heavy with spiritual undertones. The Frenchman describes eating Babette’s feasts as an experience akin to worship. It is transcendent. Completely sensual, yet always much more than that. Babette as an artist is something of an evangelist. With her extraordinary gift came a calling to bring both truth and beauty to the world. The truth she preaches with her cooking is that the body is not the enemy of the soul. The beauty in which she wraps this truth can be seen in the meticulous presentation of each dish in the meal. Too long have the villagers lived in the shadow of the lie that pleasure is sin and beauty is suspect. She knows the healing effect that the senses can have on the soul, and she knows how badly the villagers needed to be healed. The artist’s mission is to wed truth to beauty. That is the artist’s grace.
The movie makes it clear that the artist creates both for herself and for others -- never just one or the other. Because of the urgency of the calling to share truth through beauty, the artist cannot be content without both an outlet for her expression and an audience for her art. Given these two things, the artist needs nothing else. Given these, in the words of Babette, “The artist is never poor.”
Krista Zobel is a graduate of the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.