Filipa – Did you prepare that sort of dinner at the Cafe Anglais?
Babette – I was able to make them happy. When I gave of my very best.

Filippa – But this is not the end Babette. I’m certain it is not. In Paradise… you will be the greatest artist… that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!’ 

How do you market a nineteenth century period drama about a Protestant congregation in a remote Danish village? Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel, is a 1987 Danish film based on Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story, and appears as austere and as gruelling as the pious self-denial its characters practice. It’s the sort of film I think people imagine when they say they get bored by foreign films. The sort of film some wanker ‘young creative’ armed with a Carhartt jacket and a BFI membership would recommend to you. So why is this the first foreign film I chose to recommend? I could have given you something sexy – a French thriller with passionate love making and lots of death and cigarettes; a Japanese urban noire… Instead, you get a greyish nineteenth century drama on a dreary little Denmark coast.

If you’re anything like me, sometimes watching ‘proper films’ and not rewatching Miss Congeniality for the 46th time feels like this great act of self-discipline, a sacrifice of attention. If this is how you come to approach Babette’s Feast, dare I say you’re on the right track; not because you’ll spend every few minutes checking how much is left of it and looking up analyses of it so that you can sound like you ‘got it’, but because it is a film about self-discipline, of sacrifice, of sensuous indulgence, and of the suspension and release of pleasure. The story follows protestant sisters Martine and Filipa, as they age in the cloister of their father’s congregation in their remote village on the west coast of Jutland in Denmark. The brief periods of artistic and romantic longing are brought to completion in the main sequence of the film, when their French housekeeper, Babette, prepares an extravagant feast to the speculation of the pleasure-fearing congregation. The sisters come close to love, to worlds outside their stoney, linen draped village, but restrained by their father, they remain in assistance to him and eventually preside over his elderly, if a bit senile congregation. Years after taking in Babette as their housekeeper, having fled from counter-revolutionary war in Paris, Babette wins 10,000 francs in a lottery and asks to host a French dinner in honour of the founding pastor’s 100th birthday. As the ingredients begin to get shipped in (crates of wine and champagne, whole quails, even a turtle) the meal becomes a source of theological discomfort to the congregation, the sisters taken by a camp, demonic nightmare with a smoky Babette smiling, raising a chalice of wine. 

The congregation vows to consume but not savour the food, leading to a resounding silence during the meal. This brings us to the visual feast of the eyes, the meal proper, as we watch Babette cook in focused fervour, producing blinis topped with glistening lumps of caviar, and“Cailles en Sarcophage” –  a quail encased in puff pastry, swimming in foie gras and truffle, a dish that sits between mouth-watering artifice and being downright grotesque. Regardless of how you feel about it, it’s sensuous, indulgent, and delicate, charged with passion.

I first watched Babette’s Feast out of obligation. I was 13 and I think my mum was scared I was becoming too English. In a family where we spoke Frenglish, French, and sometimes my dad’s native Italian, there was an anxiety to preserve language and culture from both my parents. I didn’t appreciate at the time how lucky I was to be surrounded by different cultures, my mother half Swedish and Greek, grown up in Switzerland, and my father Italian, so I rebelled by committing to Englishness. I hated speaking French, I started carrying around that same embarrassment English people hold onto like a security blanket, I determinedly watched British sitcoms. This is all to say, my mum panicked and one night I was forced to watch Babette’s Feast. I can’t tell you how much I hoped it would be boring, I wanted to rub it in my mum’s face that this foreign film business was rubbish. But I relented, my eyes large with hunger, and I watched as the congregation too relented, and let themselves relish the unctuous delight of the meal, as their religious determinism came to something of an ascent. Slightly drunk off fine wines and seasoned food, the congregation, previously bickering and fragmented, are made whole, shouting ‘Hallelujah’ and grasping each other’s hands as Babette sits in the aftermath, sipping on coffee. I quickly wiped my tears away. Babette had given all of herself up in this meal, her art was made to be consumed, leaving its diners full in spirit. Her’s was the ultimate sacrifice, and I’d like to think we’ve all felt a fragment of this feeling when cooking for others, even if it is in a student kitchen with faulty hobs, stirring a great pot of dahl.