I recently watched the Danish film “Babette’s Feast,” which tells the story of a French maid living in a small, isolated, religious community in Jutland with two aging sisters. The beginning of the film explains this curious phenomenon, starting with the story of the sisters, Philippa and Martina, who gave up the chance at a career as an opera singer and a loving marriage with a young lieutenant, respectively, to help their father run his religious community. Their father, a charismatic Lutheran pastor, “[thinks] little of marriage and family” and so leaves behind two unmarried daughters and an aging community behind when he dies. Babette comes to Philippa and Martina from a politically unstable Paris, where her husband and son were murdered in the Communard uprising of 1871, and begs the sisters to take her in. Unbeknownst to them, she is the foremost chef in Paris.
Philippa and Martina’s home and village are stark; everything is gray, including the light that comes in through the sisters’ dirty window. When Babette arrives she cleans the window, foreshadowing the effect she will have on the community. The community is puritanical, considering most pleasures non-essential, if not temptations. The members dress, eat, and generally live very plain and simple lives. Old disputes resurface and cause frequent fighting among the aging members who cannot forget their neighbors’ wrongdoings. The sisters seem disheartened, and are unable to quell the animosity in the community, except when Babette serves dinner.
After living with the sisters for 14 years, Babette learns that she has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery, and asks them if she can prepare a special dinner to celebrate their father’s 100th birthday. They agree, but become afraid when exotic foods and animals are shipped in, fearing sin of idolatry. This is expressed in Philippa’s nightmare, where she sees the head of a calf on the tortoise Babette plans to cook. Out of fear of enjoying the alcohol and food, they agree not to praise it, saying “remember we’ve lost our sense of taste,” as if it were a sin to actively enjoy the feast. At dinner one of the women says “may God nourish my body, may my body do my soul’s bidding, maybe my soul rise up to serve up to God eternally,” emphasizing a hierarchy where the body is the least important, and not worthy of recognition of anything more than bare necessities.
The extravagant feast has theological significance, as it mimics the Last Supper and Christ’s total sacrifice. Babette’s artistry can be seen as a reflection of God’s creativity, as she meticulously prepares multiple courses, making pastry nests for the cooked quails and arranging the fruit as if she were painting a still life. Rather than seeing the act of eating as purely utilitarian, Babette imbues it with a significance and a holiness (also found in Jesus’ breaking of bread with His disciples and His proclaiming it His body). God is not an abstract concept, but a flesh and blood presence that we consume during the Mass. Similarly, we are not spirits arbitrarily housed in flesh prisons, but physical beings whose bodies are sacred and necessary for bringing us closer to God through acts of love. Babette’s feast, her work of art, becomes a reflection of the divine as it nourishes the consumer’s hearts and souls, putting them in amiable dispositions that lead to reconciliation and a return to almost child-like love for one another. When we learn that Babette has spent all 10,000 francs on the feast, the extent of her sacrifice and love becomes clear: Babette acts as a Christ figure, sacrificing everything for a people who misunderstand and do not appreciate the act, yet are transformed by it. After the meal the community forms a circle outside, holding hands and acting more amiable towards each other than they have in many years: eating is not just a means to live, but an activity that brings people together, as all members of the Church are united in receiving the Eucharist.
If Babette is foolish for spending her entire fortune on a feast for a group of ungrateful puritans, then Jesus was foolish for dying for us: this ultimate sacrifice saves the community and saves us, and is done not because it has to be, but freely, out of extravagant love. Babette speaks few words to the sisters, but shows her love for them through her labor and totally unnecessary act of love. Martina expresses concern for Babette, saying that she will be poor the rest of her life, but Babette responds by asserting, “an artist is never poor.” Creativity and love cannot be exhausted like money, which is why Christ’s love still invades our lives 2,000 years after his total sacrifice. When words fail to express one’s love, as they so often do, acts remain as testaments to our ability to be like God in loving others, and creativity as a means to make these acts beautiful.