Wednesday, 5 November 2014
Set in a remote, bleak and austere village on the windswept coast of Jutland (Denmark) in the 1870-80s, this is a film about the cult of the personality, dogma, community, outsiders, gift, generosity, redemption and transformation. The village community is governed by the domineering and dogmatic Pastor who has fashioned a hyper-Lutheran cult which would leave Luther himself spinning in his grave. In the name of God and piety any expression of self must be immediately stamped out as a mortal sin that must be confessed. This is a community that lives under the burden of guilt - their fallenness and their separation from God through sin. They sing dirge-like hymns that retell gospel stories and which paint a picture of the New Jerusalem - a place where they will be freed from their burden and restored in relationship with God.
They are so caught up in 'doing the right thing' such as acts of charity, protecting themselves from outsiders who cannot be trusted and who might lead them astray and also in being unrealistically nice to one another all the time, that they fail to see that the basis of their community is flawed and a deceit. The dogmatic Pastor instills such certainty in his flock that there is no room left for faith. Faith is the opposite of certainty.
The Pastor's two daughters are described as his right and left hands and so are pressured into being an extension of the Pastor himself - they are subsumed within him and his godly calling. Both have an opportunity to leave and marry - one with a junior officer from the Hussars and the other with a world renowned French opera singer but their father subverts the opportunities and so they remain dutifully at his side.
When the Pastor eventually dies the community carries on as before with the two sisters leading the devotions and rehearsing their father's teachings. The flock still nod in veneration to his portrait on entering the house as they live their lives focussed on the past and begin to grow older together.
Then one night in a middle of a storm a French refugee, Babette (Stéphane Audran) escaping the civil war turns up and asks the sisters if she can keep house for them. They refuse saying they have no money to pay her and when Babette produces a letter of commendation from the aforementioned opera singer and Babette offers to work for no wages as cook, they relent and take her in. However, she is an outsider and so they remain suspicious of her and her motivation.
After 14 years of faithful service where the best food ever has been served to the local poor and destitute and with the coffers of the sisters inexplicably growing, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Pastor approaches and the sisters resolve to mark the occasion with the flock. In Paris, the opera singer has been buying Babette an annual lottery ticket and it transpires that she has won the prize of FFr 10,000. Babette asks the sisters if she can cook for them a proper French dinner to celebrate the Pastor's anniversary and reluctantly they agree. (I would have thought that they would have looked on a lottery ticket as a form of gambling and therefore any proceeds from it tainted.)
The local Lady of the Manor is a faithful follower of The Pastor also and it so happens that her Grandson - the same Hussar but now a General is visiting and so he is invited as guest of honour. Babette procures the necessary ingredients for the multi-course banquet. The villagers are at first reluctant to indulge their carnal passion and resolve to eat and drink without tasting - no mention will be made of the food.
The house is transformed by the ornate and aesthetically pleasing table setting with fine crystal glasses and porcelain. The guests arrive and duly tuck into their exotic dishes course by course. The General who has travelled widely is repeatedly reminded of previous meals in a top Parisien restaurant - the Cafe Anglais. As the meal progresses and glasses of wine consumed, so the table conversation becomes more affable and the folk begin to forgive one another for their transgressions - some committed decades before. They even begin asking God's blessing on one another. The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. It turns out that Babette was the Head Chef at the Cafe Anglais and she has reproduced a banquet that foreshadows the heavenly banquet of which they often sing and which begins to transform the community. Babette spends all of winnings on the one meal - she who gives what she cannot to keep to gain what she cannot lose is no fool.
As he leaves, The General tells the sister that he thinks of her daily and that she will always occupy a special place in his heart. Babette and her helpers in the kitchen are left with mountains of washing up and some rather tasty left-overs. The community, transformed by this act of sacrificial generosity venture outside and instead of shuffling off to their dour homes hold hands and dance around the well enjoying the stars and sings songs. The sisters are frightened that Babette will leave to return to Paris but with her family killed in the uprising there is no reason for her to do so. Babette resolves to stay which pleases the sisters.
So, the Hussar, the opera singer and the chef - all outsiders attempted to make an impact on the community. The opera singer and Hussar only managing to do so decades after their failed initial attempts. Babette the chef can be seen as a type of Christ figure bringing healing, transformation and the ability to enjoy life in God's service.
Sacrificial love has an immense power to transform - it is God's grace in action and as such would have stood at the centre of a Lutheran view of the world. It's a pity the Pastor didn't see the world through Babette's eyes. Which of them was the more authentic Lutheran?
I have seen this film many times and most often in church where it has been abused to underpin some piece of dogma that is seemingly in need of being buttressed. For me the the film is almost always used eisegetically - that is reading meaning into it rather than exegetically reading meaning out of it. Perhaps you feel I am guilty of the same. Fair enough, but I acknowledge I am offering a way to read the film and not the way. I'll give it 8/10.