“Babette’s Feast” is an award-winning Danish film with English subtitles. It is based on a story by Isak Dinesen and set in turn-of-the-century Denmark, where two elderly sisters live together very simply in a small village. Their father had been the town’s minister. The sisters never married, although each had a suitor when they were young. One suitor was an officer in the military, the other a famous opera singer.
In 1890 a beautiful young woman shows up at the sisters’ door with a note from the opera singer. He asks them to please give asylum to this woman, for the French Revolution has begun in Paris, and the woman’s husband and son have been killed. The sisters tell Babette that they cannot afford to hire her. Babette tells them that she only wishes to cook for them in exchange for a room.
For 14 years Babette lives with the sisters and cooks their simple Danish meals. However, when she wins 10,000 francs in a lottery, she asks the sisters if they would allow her to cook a real French meal for them and their Wednesday night church group. The sisters agree, and Babette orders from Paris all the items she will need to prepare the meal.
The other suitor, now a retired general, happens to be in town on the night of the dinner. He shows up with his aunt for the meal. Babette has hired a local boy to do the serving. The first dish is turtle soup. The general comments that he remembers having turtle soup like this many years ago in Paris.
The meal Babette serves these twelve people is tantalizing and beautiful.
Potage a la Tortue (Turtle Soup)Blini Demidoff au Caviar (Buckwheat cakes with caviar)Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (Quail in Puff Pastry Shell with Foie Gras and Truffle Sauce)La Salade (Salad Course)Les Fromages (Cheese and Fresh Fruit)Baba au Rhum avec les Figues (Rum Cake with Dried Figs)
[If you don’t want to know the ending, skip the next paragraph.]
The poignant part of this movie is finding out that before the Revolution, Babette was the head chef at one of the finest restaurants in Paris. She was the only female chef in the city. She never told anyone this, and she used all her lottery money on this one meal. When the sisters learn that she has spent all her money on this feast, they want to know why she did it. Babette tells them that once she was a chef in Paris, and a seven-course meal for twelve at her restaurant would have cost 10,000 francs.
“The only thing an artist ever wants,” she says, “is a chance to do her very best.”
This movie is great. It is not only a look at how people lived at the turn of the 20th century but also a glimpse at a true artist. The French Revolution started because the common people were starving to death while the royals were eating elaborate meals like the one Babette prepared. In that sense, it is a cautionary tale, reminding us of what can happen when the gap between rich and poor becomes too great. Foremost, however, it is a movie about the splendor of a great feast.