Babette’s Feast: “Mercy and Truth Have Met Together”

On Film / Essays — Jul 22, 2013

The movie Babette’s Feast (1987) is adapted from a short story by the famous Danish writer Karen Blixen (1885–1962), who wrote under the pen name of Isak Dinesen. On the whole, stories are easier to adapt for cinema than novels: their quality of succinctness seems to expand rather naturally into the running time of the average art-house movie. There isn’t as much pruning to do as there is with a novel, so that, other things being equal, there is a fairer chance of the cinematic outcome being faithful to the spirit of the original.

The tale takes us into the milieu of a little Scandinavian fishing village toward the end of the nineteenth century, where a widowed pastor, aided by his two daughters, Martine and Philippa (christened, we are piquantly told, “after Martin Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon”), has set up an informal religious network devoted to hymn singing and local works of charity. The girls, who are pretty and talented as well as pious, would in the natural course of affairs seek husbands—except that the pastor, who is in other ways not a bad man, claims that he needs them for his ministry, and selfishly drives off their suitors.

This registers, unconsciously, as a sin against the spirit, and one is not surprised to hear that, after the pastor’s death, the little circle of believers becomes riven by disputes. Years go by (as they say in stories), and into the neighborhood comes another stranger, the handsome and mysterious Frenchwoman Babette, a refugee from the Paris Commune, who is taken on by the sisters, after initial misgivings on their part, as their cook and general servant. The extraordinary meal that she provides for the believers in due course to celebrate the old pastor’s centenary turns into an occasion that will transform all of their lives, in its revelation of the benign paths of destiny.

Those are the bare bones of the narrative. The Danish director Gabriel Axel’s film holds fast to Dinesen’s text, I think, in all important particulars; but of course there are some changes, and these are interesting to contemplate. Why should the movie be set in Denmark, for example, when the story is located in Norway? In an interview with the film scholar Ib Bondebjerg, Axel said that this decision was essentially visual: it had to do with matters of color and contrast. Berlevaag, the Norwegian town where Dinesen set the story (it is located under the mountains, near Berlevaag Fjord, in the story’s opening paragraph), was simply too “pastel-colored”—too tourist-friendly—for the filmmaker’s requirements. The production needed, Axel thought, a more somber locality, to bring out the full glory of the transformation that eventually takes place, when the gift of the feast converts—if only, perhaps, temporarily—the mundane habitation of the villagers into a shining little corner of paradise. As well as being logistically more convenient for what was, after all, a Danish production, the west coast of Denmark’s Jutland region, where the story was moved, provides, to perfection, the sort of lonely and unspoiled wildness of landscape that Axel and his team were aiming for.

The change in location also had certain consequences for the language; it is Danish we hear on the soundtrack rather than Norwegian. Originally published in English (not her native tongue but a language Dinesen had mastered), the story could, I suppose, have been shot in English too—as an “international coproduction.” That would have been a pity, though. Now that Scandi-thrillers like the series The Killing have made such an impact on our television habits, we are all a bit more used to hearing spoken Danish, but back in the eighties the experience, for foreigners, was rare. Danish speech is sometimes disparaged, even by the Danes themselves, as being slightly rough on the ear, but in this film it is our privilege to hear the language spoken with outstanding old-fashioned elegance by two of Denmark’s greatest classical actresses, Bodil Kjer, who plays Filippa (as it is spelled in the film), and Birgitte Federspiel, who plays Martine (viewers may recognize her from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 masterpiece Ordet, as the young farmer’s wife who tragically dies in childbirth). I should also take the opportunity to mention the lovely voice-over that accompanies the movie, spoken by another much-admired Danish actress, Ghita Nørby; Axel said that he wanted a hint of the presence of Dinesen herself to be detectible in the finished movie, and this was his way of providing it.

Besides the Danish side of things, there are also the French and Swedish components of the film to consider, the first of these present, of course, in the original—Babette, played by Stéphane Audran, was going to be a Frenchwoman in any adaptation—and the latter an addition by the filmmakers. I don’t know whether it was a condition of the production contract put in place to raise funds from Swedish sources, but the idea of making General Lorens Löwenhielm, Martine’s aristocratic former suitor, a Swedish rather than Danish army officer, and of casting the eminent actor Jarl Kulle, from Skåne, in the role, was clearly an inspiration. One can never be totally objective about such things, but most people, I think, would agree that Swedish, in contrast to Danish, is beautiful, and part of the effect of Löwenhielm’s great speech at the conclusion of the dinner derives from the fact that it is delivered in what must surely be one of the world’s most mellifluous languages.

Film, anyway, has a way of being a more concrete and physical medium than literature. Certain aspects of Dinesen’s story come to have a special salience in the film. Maybe the beauty of the language is one of them, because now one can actually hear the Scandinavian intonation, whereas on the page you can only imagine it. (Perhaps it is worth saying in passing that Swedish and Danish are not so far apart linguistically as to be mutually incomprehensible, so that it works on the level of simple realism that Löwenhielm’s listeners need no interpretation.) Music provides a similar case in point: the opera singer Achille Papin’s “seduction” of Filippa while teaching her the famous duet from Don Giovanni faithfully transcribes an episode from the original (Dinesen goes so far as to remind her readers of the melody by printing a couple of bars of it on the page). Yet in the movie, the sequence springs to life with double force—the vivid, theatrical ardor of Jean-Philippe Lafont (playing Papin) serving to reinforce, through his gestures and humor and physicality, the spiritual and emotional impact of the singing.

Other details from the story, once translated onto the screen, emerge with what one can only call a surrealistic particularity. I am thinking of the image that all viewers remember, of the enormous, sad turtle stranded on the sideboard, awaiting its transformation into soup; or that of the chirruping flock of caged quail that Babette carries in front of her through the village street, oblivious as yet (poor creatures) of the role they are to play in the creation of a culinary masterpiece. About their fate there is no sentimentality, though: the film shows (something not described in the story) their bald little heads being propped up in coffins of pastry before they are placed in the oven. The reason for this ornamental flourish by Axel is equally unsentimental: their brains are a delicacy that Löwenhielm, with his customary urbanity, knows how to access with etiquette. (He cracks the little skull with his teeth and sucks out the contents in a single draft.) “Film language is all about reference,” Axel told Bondebjerg. “We ordered everything from Paris, so all the porcelain and silver were completely authentic. The food included real caviar, real cailles en sarcophage, with truffles and authentic sauces. We did absolutely everything to ensure that the feast was truly ‘grandiose.’ That was the point of toning everything else down, because you have to begin modestly if you want to conclude with élan.”

The French word élan is an appropriate one for Axel to use; he lived for many years in France as a young man and shares something of Dinesen’s cosmopolitanism. Having trained as an actor in Paris under the legendary Louis Jouvet, he came to prominence back in Denmark in the early fifties as a master of the new genre of television drama, before moving over to cinema, where he directed an assortment of popular comedies. Before Babette’s Feast, his main moment of international recognition had been for an austere medieval epic set in Iceland, The Red Mantle (1967), widely released in America, though he was probably better known domestically during that period as the documentary investigator of Denmark’s liberal sexual mores (1968’s Sex and the Law is a characteristic title—and was instrumental in the following year’s abolition of film censorship). His essential eclecticism of outlook, combined with a fluency of composition that makes no great claims to distinguish between popular and high art, has meant that, in the pantheon of Danish filmmaking, Axel has missed out on the prestige that comes from being thought of as an “auteur.” But perfection in film art is not exclusively the province of auteurs. In Babette’s Feast, one sees all the signs of a director who, through long and classical training, has little left to learn about the craft of filmmaking—and really, when it comes to it, little left to learn about life. Axel waited until his sixty-ninth year to direct the film—one of the reasons, surely, why the end result is so mellow.

The movie came out at a serendipitous moment. Sydney Pollack’s Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985) had put Dinesen’s name on the map for international cinemagoers a year or two earlier, so the producers of Babette’s Feast (the veteran company Nordisk) were able to raise decent money against it. At the same time, there were other filmic stirrings in the vicinity. Pelle the Conqueror, directed by Bille August—with a major performance by Max von Sydow—would be released in the U.S. in 1988 and, like Babette’s Feast, won an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Von Sydow, at the height of his powers, had just recently begun to turn his talents to directing; his movie version of Herman Bang’s period tale Ved Vejen, entitled Katinka (1988), remains, I think, along with Babette’s Feast, one of the finest art-house films of the eighties. So one could definitely say that Scandinavian film was “in the air.” Surfacing, as it did, about a decade ahead of the Dogma boom, Babette’s Feast is a timely reminder, if reminder is needed, that the native film industry of Denmark didn’t come to a halt with the passing of Dreyer.

The quality of the film is, in the end, a spiritual one (which is why mention of Dreyer is merited). Since its release, critics have pointed out that the story is open to religious interpretation, which is fair, and fine, as long as one understands what is meant by this. Certainly, story and film are studded with religious references—to the Last Supper, to sacramental grace, to the importance of charity, and so on—but given that the milieu being depicted is religious, this should contain nothing to surprise us. Plainly, as viewers, we need to acknowledge a certain irony and genial good humor being directed against the narrowness of the village sectarians, while also taking the trouble to observe that the critique provided (such as it is) is congruent with broadly Christian sentiment. As in Ordet, there is puritanical Christianity and a more enlightened Christianity “of the body.” The feast given by Babette to the pious townspeople opens their minds to the notion that the pleasures of the senses aren’t necessarily sinful, but the satire involved here is very gentle, and it would be false to interpret the great sequence we are talking about as some simple endorsement of epicureanism. Actually, you could argue that the film itself resists interpretation because, as with the story, everyone already understands its essence. We take from it the sentiments and epigrams that appeal to us: “A great artist is never poor” or “That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is also granted us.” Or the poignant last line of the general’s speech: “For mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!” These are delicate and beautiful sententiae, and may be most of what we remember when, having seen the film, we come to ask ourselves where its wisdom lies.

Obviously, however, there should be room to go further. Yet deeper meditation on the issue of interpretation serves only to confirm the truth that absolute lucidity—which is what we get here and what every viewer senses—can coexist with narrative strategies that are really rather complex. Thus there are two stories, at least, going on in the closing stages of the film. Babette is busy showing us that the artist is able to respond to adversity with self-denying style and generosity, while Löwenhielm, in his after-dinner speech to the guests, is demonstrating that our choices in life—even the bad ones—are all ultimately redeemable and beneficent. Somehow, these two positions meet; at a certain level, they are identical postulates. For if Löwenhielm never sees Babette (she remains in the kitchen, outside his range of vision), he guesses she’s there—invisible, like grace—for the simple reason that, years ago in Paris, he attended a similar feast, and there is only one person in the world who could have authored this one.

“Under her eyes, things moved into their proper places.” Admirable Babette! Admirable heroine: at once grande dame and democratic freedom fighter, secure in her pride and humility, and undaunted by life’s various batterings. Her independence appeals to the modern viewer, I think. One could even call this a feminist movie. We can agree, at any rate, that Audran’s performance is serene and authoritative. Could the woman she is playing have been based on a once living person? At bottom, one never really knows where stories come from, especially the good ones. Dinesen’s story has an absolute “rightness” about it that we recognize from classical fairy tales. Its tone, its humor, its kindness, its flashes of sardonic wit, the ease and confidence of its storytelling—all these attributes seem, at times, self-perpetuating, and independent of mere human agency. It is as if the best stories, miraculously, write themselves. Axel’s film manages to capture this anonymous and folklorish quality. Faithful to the story, he has made grace visible, and given us, in addition, a wonderful lesson in courtesy.