We got ourselves into a sort of a three-way round robin on the order of presenters to makes schedules work out, and that meant that Kevin was up, and he picked a film I saw way back in college, most likely, and which was pretty much as awesome the second time as was the first time, ho so many years ago.  The film in question is Gabriel Axel‘s 1987 classic Babette’s Feast, which is based on a Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) short story, and which I feel like is one of those films that a lot of people have heard of but not seen.  And if you didn’t come last Thursday, you’re probably still one of those people.  Just sayin’.

Let’s get right to the film, which is pretty much a classic three-acter.

Well, we’ve got plenty of old lace.  Where’s the arsenic?

Set in the remote regions of Jutland (Denmark, for the geography noobs) in the middle of the 19th century, the first act follows the youth (young womanhood, really) of the two daughters of a local minister and founder of a particularly austere Protestant sect.  How do I know it was Protestant?  Well, the daughters were named Martine (after Martin Luther) and Filippa (after Philip Melanchthon), so that’s a pretty dead giveaway.  As an aside, to the best of my recollection the very first reference I heard to Philip Melanchthon (probably excepting the first time I saw the film) came literally like two days before our screening in reading Byron’s Don Juan.  Then, he shows up here in the second narrated sentence of the film.  It’s just silly how often that kind of thing happens, where I’ve never heard of some person or thing from 400 years ago and then once I hear of it once, suddenly it’s referenced everywhere.  It’s the matrix, I tell ya.  They’re just making this up as they go along, and I’m ON TO THEM.

Anyway.

Sorry, I’ve got daddy issues.

The two daughters, who shall from here on be referred to as Rosencrantzia and Guildensternia because I really don’t know which is which, are quite devoted to their father.  So much so that when Guildensternia falls in love with the Swedish Army officer Captain Löwenhielm who is visiting his aunt in town, she (and the officer, somewhat reluctantly) accede to her father’s wish that she remain devoted to (current) family and church.

The Papists in Paris Pilfer Pulchritudinous Peasants!

Of course, it’s not just Rosencrantzia but also Guildensternia who falls in love, this time with a celebrated Parisian opera singer on vacation, because, you know, Jutland was really putting out some nice tourist brochures at that time.  The opera singer first noticed Guildensternia for her voice in the church choir and asked to provide her with singing lessons, but of course those who sing together cling together as they say and things got a bit non-Platonically friendly.  Alas, once again devotion to father and church overcame the natural instincts of Man and Rosencrantzia rejected the Papist Parisian opera singer.

Which one of you is the singer?  I can’t tell.  Did you have to wear matching outfits?

Many years later, in the second act, a French political refugee named Babette shows up at Rosencrantzia and Guildensternia’s door, bearing a letter from the opera singer commending her to them after her husband and son were killed by General Galliffet in some sort of counter-revolutionary bloodshed.  The sisters seem to have no means to help her, but Babette, who is recommended as a good cook, offers to stay on as a servant for only room and board – especially as she would appear to have nowhere else to go.  The sisters take her in, and immediately set about teaching her to make a disgusting brown slop known as ale-bread after the two ingredients.  Beer, bread, cook it until it’s slop.  They’re pretty sure Babette is going to ruin their Danish culinary masterpieces.

And, of course, Babette does…by turning out to be a far better cook (especially give n the limited resources of Jutland) than anybody had right to expect.  Babette stays on for some 14 years, earning nothing, assisting with the sister’s charity and cooking for the slowly dwindling congregation, her only connection to Paris now being a lottery ticket that is renewed every year by a friend still living there.

Don’t worry, I’m a Swedish general and have no jurisdiction here…until further notice.

One day in the third act, as the congregation is anticipating the 100th birthday of the long-deceased founder (and father of Rosencrantzia and Guildensternia, if you recall), Babette receives a letter from France.  In a vindication of the literary principle of Chekhov’s gun, Babette’s lottery ticket has finally come through, for the not-so-princely sum of 10,000 francs.  (This would appear to be on the order of $150K in U.S. Dollars today, more or less.  Note that since that time, food prices have generally fallen with respect to the prices of other commodities.  Interestingly, in a Google search for “value franc 1870”, the SECOND result is a question specifically about Babette’s Feast!  Apparently it was actually 1871.  My bad.)  The sisters immediately prepare themselves for Babette to leave their service following her windfall, but she insists on catering the congregation’s celebration after all they have done for her.

The sisters are initially reluctant, but finally consent on the grounds that Babette has never once asked anything of them until this time.  They soon regret it, too, as Babette begins to order all sorts of strange foods (a live turtle?!?) and as the feast draws near, the congregation holds a secret meeting to discuss the potential “devilry” in the meal’s preparation.  They come to a decision to stand by Babette by eating this meal, whatever may be in it, and solemnly swear not to discuss the food in any way, however bad it may turn out.

Of course, it turns out that there’s a surprise guest – General Löwenhielm is once again visiting his elderly aunt, one of the last dozen members of the congregation, and he’s going to be coming to the dinner.  General Löwenhielm, you’ll remember, has some unfinished business with Rosencrantzia.

In case you have forgotten, meat is dead animals.  Let me drive this home.

Finally, the dinner is served, and while the Jutlanders are initially reluctant in their dining, General Löwenhielm enjoys the meal and wine pairings with gusto and has trouble understanding why nobody will praise the food.  It’s quite comic, especially considering that the Jutlanders gradually move from disgust with the content of the meal to a recognition that it is the finest food they have ever eaten, but yet they refuse to comment on it.

Finally, when the main dish of Quails in Coffins is brought out, the General recognizes them and launches into a story:

One day in Paris, after I’d won a riding competition, some French officers invited me out to dine at one of the city’s finest restaurants, the Café Anglais.  The chef, surprisingly enough, was a woman.  We were served “cailles en sarcophage”, a dish of her own creation.  General Galliffet, our host for the evening, explained that this woman, this head chef, had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.  General Galliffet said that in the past he’d fought a duel for the love of a beautiful woman.  But now there was no woman in Paris for who he’d shed his blood except for this chef.  She was considered the greatest culinary genius of the age.  What we are now eating is nothing less than “cailles en sarcophage”.

And so we come to realize that living with Rosencrantzia and Guildensternia all this time was a culinary genius, just waiting for her chance to bring in the proper ingredients to serve a proper meal.  One might note the other, great irony in this – General Galiffet, who in Löwenhielm’s memory would shed his blood for no woman but this chef later becomes the man who kills her husband and son, forcing her to flee into exile to avoid the same fate.  War, fickle war!

At last the meal is ended, the congregation are thoroughly enraptured by their experience, and Löwenheilm and Guildencrantzia come to some sort of resolution.  Then the sisters prepare to bid farewell to Babette, who is certainly going to return to Paris with her lottery winnings.  But Babette explains that 1) there’s nobody in Paris for her to go back to, and 2) she spent the entire amount of her winnings on the feast.  The whole shebang, simply for one chance to be an artist again.  Rosensternia ends the film with the encomium: “In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be.  Ah, how you will delight the angels!”

This movie is just a great movie.  A nearly perfect film that has perhaps a little bit less food porn than I had remembered on my first viewing (but some of that may be due to the fact that Food Network didn’t exist then to raise my adaptation level).  Still, the dinner scene takes up nearly half of the film’s runtime, and the amazing thing is that it doesn’t even come close to dragging.  That’s how good this movie is.  Why haven’t you seen it yet?