Today’s recommended elixir is a short story better known as a film: Babette’s Feast by Karen Blixen (published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen). The 1988 French film, written/adapted and directed by Gabriel Axel, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and a BAFTA award for Best Film Not In The English Language. Apparently, it is also the favorite film of Pope Francis, and the first film to be mentioned in a papal encyclical. (See Amoris laetitia 129.)
The film is well worth watching, but having seen it is no excuse for skipping Blixen’s original. Axel’s film is a therapeutic moral fable about the generosity of the artist. Blixen’s original story is an allegory of grace.
Were you so inclined, you could both read and watch Babette’s Feast in just over two hours. (I believe it is the established custom at this point to advise the uninitiated reader or viewer of SPOILERS ahead, though in my opinion the wit and beauty of Blixen’s prose and the subtle sophistication of Axel’s cinematography prevent them from being spoiled by something so incidental as already knowing the outline of what happens. If you are unconvinced, I’ll meet you back here in two hours.)
The story of the book and the film are the same: Martine and Philippa are the daughters of a Lutheran minister (long since dead) who founded his own piously ascetic sect. Having grown up in a church that believed that “earthly love, and marriage with it, were trivial matters, in themselves nothing but illusions” the sisters are aging spinsters. In their youth they were divinely beautiful, like twin Beatrice figures, and admired by many young men for their kindness and charity as much as their blonde radiance.
Babette is a refugee from the Communard revolution in France. She arrives, in Blixen’s words, as a “massive, dark, and deadly pale woman” who faints on the sister’s threshold one stormy night. Babette’s friend, famed tenor Achille Papin, who had once loved Phillipa for her angelic soprano, has given Babette a letter of introduction, begging the sisters’ mercy and attesting simply that “Babette can cook.”
Fourteen years later she is living with the sisters as their maid-of-all-work, at her own insistence accepting no wages despite her absolute poverty. Babette’s only remaining tie with France is an annual lottery ticket, and one day a letter arrives informing her she has won the marvelous sum of 10,000 francs.
Axel’s film is a therapeutic moral fable about the generosity of the artist. Blixen’s original story is an allegory of grace.
Babbette then asks the sisters for the only favour she has ever sought: she wants to cook a French dinner for their brethren, and she wants to pay for it herself. With reluctance, Martine and Philippa agree, but the dinner becomes a source of great worry to the sisters and their small and querulous congregation. They fear the decadence of French cooking, but resolve, for the sake of the sisters’ promise to Babette, to undergo this ordeal without speaking one word about the strange food.
Despite the worries of the sisters and the brethren, Babette’s cooking is a revelation of joy, which is shared, despite their silence, and potent enough to heal the rifts between them. General Lowenheilm, a surprise guest and long-ago suitor of Martine’s, who alone understands the true wonder of the feast, acts as a guide (or a priest) to the congregation: teaching and preaching a sort of culinary mystagogy to those uninitiated in the mysteries. The food and wine are such as one could only find at the Cafe Anglais in Paris back when a great woman was the chef there. To find it in a simple Scandinavian dining room defies explanation.
As is foreshadowed throughout the narrative, the sisters discover after the dinner that Babette is that famed chef, and that she has spent all her lottery money to give them one exquisite meal.
In the film, as Pope Francis and others have explained it, what happens at that table is the vanquishing of the puritanism of the sisters and the brethren: overcome with joy, they can abandon their rigidity and preoccupation with rules so as to love one another. This eunoia is the result of Babette’s generosity, her decision to give of herself to those who had been good to her. A selfless gift benefits giver and recipient alike.
Babette’s gift flows from her very nature, from what it is to be the great artist–and the feast is the manifestation of her true artistry.
It is at this point that the book and the film part company, for Axel’s Babette is a very different character to Blixen’s. Gentle and elegant, if aloof, in the deft portrayal by Stéphane Audran, in the film Babette smiles softly when a shocked Phillipa cries, “Dear Babette, you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake,” and replies gently “Not only for your sake.” She explains that she is a great artist.
Joy, we are left to conclude is both the gift and reward of the artist.
Blixen’s Babette is not gentle. She is quiet and competent, but also inscrutable. The sisters never understand their servant, realising only that “Babette was deep, and that in the soundings of her being there were passions, there were memories and longings of which they knew nothing at all.” When Blixen’s Babette is told she ought not to have given all she had, she “gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn at the bottom of it? ‘For your sake?’ she replied. ‘No. For my own.’” Babette is a lioness: adamant and and terrible.
Martine is horrified at Babette’s gift, likening it in her own mind to cannibalism. Philippa spies an affirming lesson on human loyalty and self-sacrifice in the cook’s gift, but Babette’s sharp words tear this comfort from her. Babette’s gift flows from her very nature, from what it is to be the great artist–and the feast is the manifestation of her true artistry.
In the final unsettling scene Blixen presents her allegory of grace: not the currency of the moral economy, but a manifestation of God, the great artist, at work in the world.
Axel’s film presents a moral challenge to live with gratitude and give unstintingly of ourselves. The original story, however, presents an even more difficult challenge: to live with awareness of God’s grace as immanent in the world, and, in His presence, to raise our sights to the world to come.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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