First, this goes on my list of all-time great food movies. It’s a small genre, but a delicious one. I have seen movies that glorify Italian cooking (Big Night), Chinese (Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)), and Mexican (Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate)) … and another whose title I can’t recall, but it started with a man making squash-blossom soup. Can anybody help me out here?), and make the cooking and eating an essential part of the story, but oddly, this is the first one I’ve seen that does the same for French cuisine. These are movies where they ought to issue you a spoon as you go into the theater, they look so good you want to eat the light coming out of the projector. There is a sensual beauty to food that is prepared with love, skill, and art, and these movies celebrate that.
But cooking isn’t enough to sustain a movie, and all of those mentioned above know that. So does Babette’s Feast, and when we begin, if we hadn’t been alerted by the title, we wouldn’t know that food figured in this story at all. It takes place in the late 1800s, in Denmark, among a dwindling sect of puritans who live bleak, abstemious lives mostly devoted to their religion. The big guru has two beautiful daughters, both of whom end up giving up their dreams to devote themselves to their father.
They grow old. Enter Babette in 1871, fleeing Les Miserables … or the events chronicled in it. All we know about her is that she is in trouble in France, can’t return, and she begs the sisters to be allowed to live there and work for them, for no wages. She does this for 14 years. These are people whose diet is almost entirely smoked sole, lutefisk and something called ale bread that looks like unbaked pumpkin pie.
Then she hits the lottery for FR10,000. The sisters are about to celebrate the 100th birthday of their dead father. Babette says she wants to cater the dinner. Nobody in the village is thrilled by this idea, even though they have no idea what they’re in for. But they agree, and also agree among themselves not to enjoy this foreign, decadent food. They’ll choke it down and go back to their lutefisk.
Then the ingredients begin arriving. A live turtle big as a station wagon. Live quails. Caviar, sour cream, ice, fruit, truffles, fine wines. Turns out Babette was the head chef in the best restaurant in Paris. The meal begins … and I won’t spoil it for you. The world isn’t changed, minds aren’t changed but they are opened up a little. And it is all so perfect, so right, that you find yourself nodding and smiling at everything that happens. So it’s a lot more than just another great food movie. It’s a great movie on any terms. Don’t miss it.