Some films beg to be watched twice. The truly great ones invite repeated viewings. One film that I come back to time and time again is Babette’s Feast. This Danish production from 1987 is a masterpiece of understated, but profound, storytelling. And, having watched it again recently, I caught something I hadn’t seen before.
Set in the spare and bleak Jutland region of Denmark in the late 19th century, it follows the lives of two sisters, Martina and Philippa, beautiful daughters of the leader of a strict Protestant holiness sect. We see in the beginning how both overcome worldly temptations to remain true to the teachings of their father. We are shown how they dedicate their lives to serving their small, dwindling congregation.
One day, when they are much older and their father has long since passed away, a stranger appears at their door. Babette, exiled from France, presents Martina and Philippa a letter of introduction from a famous French tenor who had spent some time in Jutland many years before. In the letter, he begs the sisters to take Babette in as a housemaid, noting that “she can cook.” By small degrees, we are shown what his understatement really means.
To me, the story is ostensibly about the beauty of giving. The joy of generosity. The charism of selflessness. But. There is something deeper, more subtle, at work as well. We see it in the character of proud and cosmopolitan General Lorens Löwenhielm. He is with this group of people on the occasion of a French feast, prepared by Babette, to honour the centenary of the group’s once-beloved leader. These frugal and plain people are concerned that the worldliness of this French food (turtle soup, quails in pastry, cheeses, wines!) will corrupt them. So they resolve to partake of the meal out of respect for Babette, but earnestly, as if they had no sense of taste.
However, General Löwenhielm, as the worldly outsider, realizes from his surprising first sip of fine amontillado sherry, that there is something very special about the meal. He constantly recognizes and declares the wonder of the food and drink that is presented to him, course by course. And the small group is pulled in by his words and delight. Reluctantly at first, but by the end, they are also savouring the food and wine with pink-cheeked joy.
And here it is. The unexpected punchline of this parable. The character we need to focus on to “get” this story is not Babette, but General Löwenhielm.
It was he, the outsider, that transformed the occasion. The group’s resolve to treat Babette’s offering, her sacrifice, as a mere meal melted because of this one man who saw/smelled/tasted what the insiders did not want to see or smell or taste. It is to their credit (their salvation?) that they allowed their eyes and noses and tongues to waken.
And it’s always like that. Things such as homogeneity and strict obedience to dogma and doctrine invariably lead to stagnation. We need the “other” to point out the delights and beauty that come when let go of our resolve to stick to what we know. We need outsiders to demonstrate the wonders of those things that we fear will somehow corrupt us. And, we need to be willing to open up, even if reluctantly at first, to see and smell and taste these things for ourselves.