Friday, 16 April 2010

Babette's Feast (1987 )

Synopsis: 19th century Denmark. A couple of old sisters recall how a life-changing female French chef came to live with them. Like a Scandie-visual version of the Larousse Gastronomique in cordon bleu food porn mode.

I'd first seen this film years ago, when BBC2 showed proper decent European films, at a proper, decent hour. Then a friend's Dad recently gave him a copy so I got to re-visit it.

It's always interesting watching films that you haven't seen for years, as I remembered it as being a lot darker (in terms of lighting rather than mood) than it actually is. There was also a bittersweet love story which has a rather poignant and delicate conclusion.

We start off with two elderly sisters, spinsters, living a spartan, Puritanical life in rural, seaside Denmark. Thinking about their lot in life, they look back at their younger days and how through a series of interesting episodes involving suitors for both women being eventually rejected, a female French chef comes to live with them.

Due to needing a 'holiday' for 'over exhaustion' a French opera singer comes to stay in the Danish village where the sisters live. After attending church one Sunday and hearing one of the sister's singing, he offers her free singing lessons. After a few lessons, it's obvious that she has both an outstanding voice and a romantic hold over her teacher. Her father, the stern village preacher, rejects the idea of his daughter flouncing off to Paris to sing in the opera and the singer leaves the village all the sadder. Years later, during the Franco-Prussian war, the singer sends a friend (Babette), whose son and husband have been killed, to the safety of the far flung Danish village. The sisters take in Babette as their cook, not knowing that she had been a famous chef in Paris.

We also see the other sister wooed by a soldier, again ended by her stern father. The soldier goes on to become a general in the Swedish army and marries into a good family.

We then move on slowly, Babette has been with the sisters for over ten years, fitted in with their way of life and cooking the grimmest looking food. The narrative takes a turn when she learns that she has won a huge amount in the French lottery. The sisters worry that this means her return to Paris, but instead she insists on holding a lavish dinner party in honour of their dear departed father.

This is where the film really comes into its own. Babette visits a larger town to contact her cousin to order some key ingredients, wine etc. from Paris. All sorts of strange things start arriving in town (cow's heads, enormous blocks of ice, a turtle, cages of quails etc.). The day of the dinner arrives and we watch (drooling) as Babette prepares the feast. We see her unwrap expensive, vintage wine and brandy, boil stock for soup and prepare pastry.

Out in the parlour and dining room something else is happening. The uptight, Puritan pensioners that have up to this point been mealy mouthed and grumpy, with much in fighting, start very slowly to loosen up, relax and re-strengthen bonds. We see the beautiful dinner table, complete with crystal water, wine (both white and red) and brandy glasses and a range of cutlery. These simple Danish folk have never seen the like of it. They are being opened up to a different way of eating - they will, for the first time in their lives, enjoy a meal and get drunk.

As we see Babette working her way through the cooking in the kitchen, we see the parallel in the dining room of the diners enjoying new sights, tastes and smells.

Crucially, one of the key diners is the soldier who had once come a-wooing one of the sisters (along with his aunt, a local bigwig). He has risen through the ranks and enjoyed the finer things in life, including food, in Paris. One of the real joys of the film is watching the general enjoy his food, recognising the vintage of the red wine and the particular recipes/versions of dishes that he is served. He knows his stuff and knows that the only person who could possibly be cooking this meal, can be the chef from the Cafe de Paris.

It's really lovely seeing the different reactions of the general and the older guests. He knows what he's eating and drinking and is enthralled; they don't know what they're eating or drinking and are also enthralled. There's a really lovely moment where an old harridan picks up her water glass thinking that it holds some other liquor. When she realises it's water, she quickly puts it down and goes for the red again - absolutely relishing it.

In the kitchen, I loved watching Babette making the little quail pies, reducing a stock that looks so rich you can smell and taste it. I loved seeing her prepare her dessert, a cake covered in angelica, dried fruit and liquor and I loved seeing the general's driver sampling each wine and getting tipsy.

We go through several courses and eventually coffee and as we move through we see the guests make friends again, forgive previous differences and re-kindle romances.

At the end of the evening the general gets a chance to say goodnight to the sister whom he had previously romanced. This is such an unexpected moment of delight - he says to her that she is with him everyday and that she will continue to be so. He says that he hopes that she knows it and kisses her hand. This delicate emotional climax sums up this film so nicely. This is not an extravagant foodie blow out like La Grande Bouffe. This is one woman's way of expressing her gratitude and love for a quiet community that saved her life and the delicate but incredibly generous way in which she does this. This is a film about subtle joys and bittersweet regrets.

The final scene of the film has the sisters thanking Babette for her feast and acknowledging that she will now return to Paris with her lottery winnings. But Babette has a surprise - she is not leaving, she has spent all her winnings on the meal. When the sisters confront her spending so lavishly and going to so much trouble, she sums everything up by saying that the sisters have allowed her to be the best artist that she could be and that that is the real zenith of existence for her.

I loved it that although this film is about the domineering father and lost loves of the sisters, it is the relationship between them both and Babette that is at the emotional core of the film.

See also: Big Night, Milou en Mai, La Grand Bouffe

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