Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Guest Russell Lucas

Babette's Feast

Recommended Posts

Now that the blu-ray's here (and... wow), we should see some new reviews popping up.

 

Here's Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Alan Jacobs (in a post titled 'The Selfish Babette'):

But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect. . . .

Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others, but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. . . .

There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and perhaps the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of contemplation.

Noah Millman responds:

My recollection of the movie is that, similarly to the story, Babette’s motivation isn’t to give pleasure to anybody, but simply to show them what she can do. Indeed, a good part of what she’s doing is showing her superior talent to people who will never appreciate it – who, in fact, have never appreciate what it means that they have a great artist living with them and working for them, and never will. But primarily, she isn’t even trying to show that to them – she wants to show herself, once more, just what she is capable of.

But I can’t go along with Jacobs’s conclusion, reflected in his title, that this desire of Babette’s is selfish: . . .

We should recall that Babette is an exile, forced into her demeaning position by revolution and war in which she had no personal stake. Once upon a time, she had an audience that actually could appreciate her cooking – but she didn’t cook for the appreciation; she cooked because she was a great artist. And now, in exile for years, she not only has been unable to exercise her art, she has been stuck among people who wouldn’t understand her art if it hit them over the head. And they don’t! But still, she wants to cook a great meal again, because she can.

Is that selfish? Inhuman? Then so is art itself. . . .

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Alan Jacobs has re-posted and expanded his blog post from four years ago:

. . . The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.”  It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
phlox   

Someone else could probably articulate this better, but the blog post does show a thought-provoking contrast between the way Babette’s character is portrayed in the novella and the film.

Ironically, her fulfilling position as head chef at Café Anglais in France, was supported by the very aristocracy she later fought against and fled, losing everything.  But her lavish feast, and the personal epiphanies it brings, makes her finally independent from  the Parisian elite whose praise once gave her identity. Perhaps it also frees her from being distrusted as a Catholic in the Puritanical culture of the Danish villagers. So maybe the assertion of being an artist is not denying the blessing bestowed on her employers, but simply claiming her own gift in the process. While the film undoubtedly presents a more humble, saintly impression of Babette, the literary version can also be seen as God choosing unlikely servants, flawed humans with complex motives and backgrounds, to accomplish works of grace and transformation.

Edited by phlox

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Rob Z   
21 hours ago, phlox said:

Ironically, her fulfilling position as head chef at Café Anglais in France, was supported by the very aristocracy she later fought against and fled, losing everything.  But her lavish feast, and the personal epiphanies it brings, makes her finally independent from  the Parisian elite whose praise once gave her identity.

This is a great point. The novella really emphasizes this, and the film doesn’t foreground it at all, although the implication is still clearly there. It’s another way that the novella emphasizes Babette’s artistic achievement over against other meanings of the feast.

21 hours ago, phlox said:

Perhaps it also frees her from being distrusted as a Catholic in the Puritanical culture of the Danish villagers.

Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps that’s my tendency to see archetypes in characters, and to see their interactions through that lens. I think these Danish “Puritans” come off pretty well by the end, although it takes a Catholic with a very embodied, incarnational spirituality to transform them. (I love it that they all wear crosses, but Babette’s cross has Jesus on it whereas the sisters’ crosses are plain crosses. Am I remembering that correctly?) These two competing spiritual sensibilities are integrated in the feast no matter how you look at it though. Indeed: “Mercy and truth meet together. Righteousness and Bliss kiss each other.” (Of course, the historical Puritans were not nearly as puritanical as they are made out to be by secular/modern folks, or even as puritanical as many of those modern folks themselves.)

21 hours ago, phlox said:

So maybe the assertion of being an artist is not denying the blessing bestowed on her employers, but simply claiming her own gift in the process. While the film undoubtedly presents a more humble, saintly impression of Babette, the literary version can also be seen as God choosing unlikely servants, flawed humans with complex motives and backgrounds, to accomplish works of grace and transformation.

I think this is exactly right. I think that the story suggests this too in the transformation of Loewenheilm and his speech--it applies to Babette and the unexpected fulfillment of her artistic vocation, which is also her spiritual vocation in ways she never could have imagined as a fancy chef or a wretched refugee. I think the film's final lines are essential in this regard, too. They point toward an ultimate fullness, reconciliation, and fulfillment that the feast (and of course the eucharist) orient us toward.

On 11/26/2017 at 3:52 PM, Peter T Chattaway said:

The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.”  It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.

So I guess I'm saying that Jacobs, a far better reader than me and someone I've learned so much from, misreads the novella. The story absolutely cares about gift and grace, even if sees these under a more haughty art-for-art's-sake Babette. It's ultimately art for God's sake in both versions. And I disagree that the film sentimentalizes the story in this regard (though it may in others). The film concludes with a more holistic, integral vision of the meaning of art (and faith!). I'd say the the film Christianizes the source material, or at least the character of Babette. It mightily integrates those aspects of life we want to separate: the bodily/artistic and the ascetic/spiritual. The film allows Babette's character to have her spiritual/artistic Bundt cake and eat it too! 

Edited by Rob Z

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
phlox   
8 hours ago, Rob Z said:

 I think these Danish “Puritans” come off pretty well by the end, although it takes a Catholic with a very embodied, incarnational spirituality to transform them. (I love it that they all wear crosses, but Babette’s cross has Jesus on it whereas the sisters’ crosses are plain crosses. Am I remembering that correctly?) These two competing spiritual sensibilities are integrated in the feast no matter how you look at it though. 

Thanks for your thoughts.  The part about the two spiritual sensibilities working together seems very true to me.  Not sure about the cross/ crucifix (in the film maybe?) 

There might not be anything specific about Babette being redeemed in the villagers' eyes after the feast...but there are hints that they saw her extravagance and sensual indulgence brought good spiritual “fruit”– relationships are enhanced, they feel restored to a blissful childlike innocence-- 

“They realized that the infinite grace of which General Loewenhielm had spoken had been allotted to them, and they did not even wonder at the fact, for it had been but the fulfillment of an ever‐present hope. The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is.”

Babette's final words about artists do seem a bit harsh, jarring compared to the film.... but she had been forced to suppress her creative expression for so long. Dineson's ending  in a way combines the parable of the talents with the celestial feast of the lamb.

Edited by phlox

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Rob Z   
9 hours ago, phlox said:

but there are hints that they saw her extravagance and sensual indulgence brought good spiritual “fruit”– relationships are enhanced, they feel restored to a blissful childlike innocence-- 

“They realized that the infinite grace of which General Loewenhielm had spoken had been allotted to them, and they did not even wonder at the fact, for it had been but the fulfillment of an ever‐present hope. The vain illusions of this earth had dissolved before their eyes like smoke, and they had seen the universe as it really is.”

Yes, and just as their ascetic longings and "ever-present hope" are fulfilled in the very sensual meal, for Loewnheilm the feast restores to him a formerly-distant spiritual hope that he was only able to find because of his sensual and worldly tastes and knowledge.

9 hours ago, phlox said:

Babette's final words about artists do seem a bit harsh, jarring compared to the film.... but she had been forced to suppress her creative expression for so long. Dineson's ending  in a way combines the parable of the talents with the celestial feast of the lamb.

 I hadn't considered that parable before, but it makes sense. I guess I see this in the film, too, as well as the story but with the edges smoothed, more art as integral to spirituality (and hospitality) rather than as kept separate. Not that I think the story allows that reductive a view of art as I mentioned before.

A key difference in telling the same story in two different media is that the novella emphasizes the Artist whereas the film emphasizes the Art, the sensuality and aesthetics of the meal--and thus can show even better what it means for the congregation (though perhaps less for the Artist herself than in the story...but it's still there).

The film's ending reminds me of the ending of Vanya on 42nd Street. (Or perhaps I should say that the novella's ending reminds me of the ending of Chekhov's earlier Uncle Vanya, but I knew the film first in both cases.)

...starting at about 3:22 to the end in particular.

Edit: I see that I was wrong on the cross/crucifix distinction. Upon examining a few stills close up, Babette does not wear a crucifix, only a slightly more elaborate cross. I was reading my interpretation of the film (which stands) into these details. Memory will do that sometimes!

Edited by Rob Z

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Rob Z   

To take up a couple strands from earlier in the thread:

Some of the formal limitations of the film, particularly in the plot, arise, I think, because the film follows the novella so closely in plot. I wouldn’t call this a flaw though…it lends a certain character to the film, but it is a limitation. Perhaps the film would have been even better if it had taken more formal risks, but I’ll gladly keep it for what it is! The divergences from the source material in plotting and dialogue, as we’ve been discussing, are generally welcome (and significant) for that reason.

 

In no way does Loewnhielm and Martina’s interaction come off to me as an inappropriate or an “adultery in the heart” kind of thing. Martina is for him exactly what Beatrice was for Dante. I think it’s a similar relationship, only Beatrice died young, and a moment like this was never possible. (And I should add this is very much not like the distant woman-on-a-pedestal relationship of Petrarch to Laura or Sidney to Stella.) He acknowledges that she has been his spiritual pole star pointing him north…to God.

That he has been granted the grace to share a spiritual communion with her is part of the infinite mercy that we receive from God even what we rejected. (Humans pridefully and sinfully wanted to be like God, so God became a human so that humans may actually be like God!) His speech reminds me of these words of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.

Quote

…active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams.  Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching.  Indeed, it will go as far as the giving of one’s own life, provided it does not take too long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising.  Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.  But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment – I predict this to you – you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.


 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

phlox wrote:
: Dineson's ending  in a way combines the parable of the talents with the celestial feast of the lamb.

Heh. Well, I'm one of those who think that the parable of the talents (or, in Luke's version, the parable of the minas) is frequently misread too, so make what you will of *that*. (Basically, the typical Christian interpreter of the parable assumes that the master is God and collecting interest is a good thing, whereas many/most scholars would note that collecting interest is forbidden in the Jewish scriptures and the master is actually the villain that the servant makes him out to be -- this is much clearer in Luke's version of the parable, where the master is implicitly identified with the wicked Herods, than it is in Matthew's.)

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Rob Z   
3 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

phlox wrote:
: Dineson's ending  in a way combines the parable of the talents with the celestial feast of the lamb.

Heh. Well, I'm one of those who think that the parable of the talents (or, in Luke's version, the parable of the minas) is frequently misread too, so make what you will of *that*. (Basically, the typical Christian interpreter of the parable assumes that the master is God and collecting interest is a good thing, whereas many/most scholars would note that collecting interest is forbidden in the Jewish scriptures and the master is actually the villain that the servant makes him out to be -- this is much clearer in Luke's version of the parable, where the master is implicitly identified with the wicked Herods, than it is in Matthew's.)

I'm entirely sympathetic to the alternate (or original?) interpretation of the parable that you present here, Peter. I first came across it in Ched Myers Sabbath Economics, and I'm convinced that the story offers an anti-imperial, anti-capitalist critique, especially in Luke's parable of the minas, as you say, and also because of the context it's in in both gospels (Zaccheus, weeping over Jerusalem, cleansing the temple, paying taxes to Caesar, etc.) Jesus' followers would most likely have identified with the protesting slave or citizens who refuse to participate in the unjust business practices and suffers for it.

That said, I think the parables can be interpreted both ways. The conventional interpretation certainly works, too. These are parables, after all. (And I think it can productively challenge us to consider the analogy of God being like a mob boss with henchmen or a robber baron turned crooked politician. I do think the critique you mention is essential though, especially considering the current state of American government and the extent that it's supported by those who identify as Christians. We need to recognize the villain as such first, as you say.) You don't have to fully accept an analogy or hypothetical to accept them as tools for making an argument. The conventional reading is a partial reading, certainly, but I wouldn't call it a misreading, just as I would call the interpretation you espouse legitimate though certainly not exhaustive.

I mean, the upshot of Babette's Feast isn't about the plight of the Communard refugees or the economic oppression by the French government/aristocracy and how Babette returns to her participation in this unjust economic/food system by spending her money the way she does, right? Sure, there is social critique to be made there, but that shouldn't distract us from what else the story is saying.

Furthermore, I think that phlox's assertion makes sense within the conventional interpretation, no? To bring this back to Babette again, John Milton used the parable to lament his own inability to use the artistic gifts that he knew he had for God's glory at the beginning of one of his most famous sonnets. (He would, of course, though blind, go on to write Paradise Lost.)

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide

The sonnet famously ends "They also serve who only stand and wait," perhaps as Babette (and Phillipa) had been doing.

Edited by Rob Z

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
phlox   
8 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

phlox wrote:
: Dineson's ending  in a way combines the parable of the talents with the celestial feast of the lamb.

Heh. Well, I'm one of those who think that the parable of the talents (or, in Luke's version, the parable of the minas) is frequently misread too, so make what you will of *that*. (Basically, the typical Christian interpreter of the parable assumes that the master is God and collecting interest is a good thing, whereas many/most scholars would note that collecting interest is forbidden in the Jewish scriptures and the master is actually the villain that the servant makes him out to be -- this is much clearer in Luke's version of the parable, where the master is implicitly identified with the wicked Herods, than it is in Matthew's.)

Good point…. the parable analogy is bit of  a stretch.   :-)

I guess you could say the film does a better job of making Babette’s character consistent and graceful as a humble martyr, while the novella clearly doesn’t want us to view her that way in the end. The one thing Babette had left in life after all her loss and hardship was her creative gift, and she’d been forced to bury it.  To me that explains her words and tone in the novella.  Maybe Dineson as an author had a similar axe to grind, being encouraged to do her second best instead of her utmost…. I don’t know.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Rob Z   
On 6/8/2010 at 9:08 AM, Overstreet said:

It wasn't until my most recent viewing that I recognized Preben Lerdorff Rye sitting at the table.

 

For those who don't recognize the actor's name, maybe you'll recognize this...

 

ordet.jpg

 

I may be the last person on this board to make the connection, but I was stunned that I'd never recognized him before, having seen both films so many times.

My mind has just been blown by a connection that I noticed between Babette’s Feast and Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath.

(Vague spoilers about the latter film follow.)

I was aware that two of the principle actors of Ordet, Preben Lerdorff Rye (Johannes) and Birgitte Federspiel (Inger), are members of the aging congregation in Babette’s Feast. I didn’t realize until revisiting some scenes from the film because of this discussion in this thread that actress Lisbeth Movin, the main character in Day of Wrath, was also an elderly widow in the congregation. In Day of Wrath, Anne (Movin) and Martin (Lerdorff Rye) fall in love even though Anne is married to Martin’s much older father, who is much older than her. This secret romance does not end well, to put it mildly. Interestingly, this is very similar the nature of the relationship between the same actors’ characters in Babette’s Feast, only without the pall of witch hunting mania. Here is how the novella describes it:

Quote

There was a gray, honest skipper and a furrowed, pious widow, who in their young days, while she was the wife of another man, had been sweethearts. Of late each had begun to grieve, while shifting the burden of guilt from his own shoulders to those of the other and back again, and to worry about the possible terrible consequences, through all eternity, to himself, brought upon him by one who had pretended to hold him dear. They grew pale at the meetings in the yellow house and avoided each other’s eyes.

After the meal Babette creates, the members of the congregation begin to forgive and reconcile. Here is how the novella describes that for these two characters:

Quote

Skipper Halvorsen and Madam Oppegaarden suddenly found themselves close together in a corner and gave one another that long, long kiss, for which the secret uncertain love affair of their youth had never left them time.

And here is how the film portrays this scene. When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine this as the reconciliation between Martin and Anne, with all the disappointed longings and spiritual darkness (and even the evil perpetrated in the name of religion) of Day of Wrath redeemed. I honestly started crying when I watched this scene with that in mind.

Others may have noticed this connection long ago, but it seems significant to me, as more than just an homage to Dreyer but an active engagement with and interpretation of his canon. Just one more reason to love and appreciate Babette’s Feast

Edited by Rob Z

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×