When watching the In Memoriam segment of the Oscars last month, I learned that the French actress Stéphane Audran, who played the title role in the Danish film Babette’s Feast, passed away in 2018. Babette’s Feast—and Audran’s performance as the chef who moves from Paris to the desolate, western coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark—are among my all-time favorites. (Babette’s Feast also ranks as Pope Francis’ favorite movie, but I’ll bet he hasn’t watched Bull Durham.*)
Here is a short synopsis (spoiler alert: you will find out all the basics, but none of the real nuance that makes this such a wonderful film):
The movie begins in a small Protestant village that has been led for many years by a very rigid pastor. The beliefs of the congregation are extremely Puritan, making the village a drab, grey place where there is hardly any joy. After the pastor has died, his two elderly daughters are forced into leading the older, dwindling congregation. They had hoped to marry when they were young and beautiful, but their father was staunchly against marriage and turned away all suitors.
One day a French woman, Babette, comes to the village as a refugee with a letter of introduction from one of the long-ago suitors, now a famous opera singer. When the sisters say they cannot afford to pay her, Babette says she will work for free. Over the course of 14 years she cooks for them, improves their bland meals, and earns their respect. One day Babette discovers that she won a Parisian lottery worth 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice. Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.
There are twists and turns (and more beautiful shots of food than you can imagine). Eventually the congregations’ vow to eat but not comment on the joy of this “sinful” feast is broken. “Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.” Upon learning that Babette has spent the entire lottery winnings on the meal, one of the sisters says to her that she will be poor the rest of her life. Babette simply replies, “An artist is never poor.”
Many commentators have spoken to the power of Babette’s Feast, which won the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. While some see it very much in religious terms, it moves me because of the sense of self-sacrifice, outside of any one set of religious beliefs, that leads to that “mystical redemption of the human spirit” in others. Self-sacrifice is often scorned in today’s world; it is for “suckers.” Most of us don’t regularly face situations that call for self-sacrifice. The last time we responded to such a situation as a nation, some 400,000 U.S. service men and women died in WWII. I believe we are rapidly facing a time where, in response to climate change, society will have to face decisions that call for individual and national self-sacrifice.
But there are situations when we give up what we may want for the larger community. Parents regularly sacrifice for the good of their children. Exceptional leaders, writes Erika Anderson in Forbes, “do things that are personally uncomfortable or even risky for the good of the enterprise, or to protect the people who follow them. . . . They often make decisions they know will put an extra burden on them—emotionally or in terms of time and energy—in order to benefit their followers or their customers. And most important, they make ethical choices that may not be comfortable or lucrative—but are the right thing to do.” The author Stephen Carter speaks to something similar, writing about the loss of “the language of community, of sharing, of fairness, of riding politely alongside our fellow citizens.…” Self-sacrifice moves us past our own ego and self-absorption into the language, and life, of community.
At the end of the movie, one of the sisters says to Babette, “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!” Rest in peace, Stéphane Audran. Your performance showing a way to reclaim and redeem the human spirit, remains.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*Bull Durham is my favorite movie, and not only because it is (somewhat) about baseball. With that recommendation, I’d be surprised to find out that you care what I thought of the 2018 Best Picture nominees, but if you are so inclined, feel free to click through and take a look.