Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, the Academy Award-winning, Danish-language film, Babette’s Feast, is a slow, atmospheric exploration of the choices and sacrifices we make in life. Set in the late nineteenth century, in a small village on the coast of Jutland, it follows the lives of two sisters, daughters of the stern village minister, devoted to their simple faith and good works. Beautiful and talented, and pursued by numerous suitors, both give up their dreams to serve their father and his small flock of pious, but quarrelsome, followers.
Years pass and their father has died and one stormy night the sisters rescue a mysterious French woman seeking asylum from the wars in France, in which she has lost everything. Babette becomes cook and housekeeper to them and they teach her to make their simple, austere meals of salted cod, thin soup and alebrot. Over the years, Babette finds a kind of peace in the village, quietly serving the sisters.
Many more years pass, and just before the 100th anniversary of the minister’s birth, Babette has a financial windfall, enough to leave Denmark, return to Paris and live independently. Instead, she asks if she can prepare an authentic French dinner for the small remnant of the minister’s followers, to honor the sisters who saved her and the memory of their father. (Yes, this meal ends up costing her the entire amount of her winnings.) The sisters cannot refuse her, so they reluctantly agree to the plan, but they and their friends are wary of being seduced by the worldly influence of French food, and they all secretly vow to resist any hedonistic pleasure the meal might offer. Nice try.
Now we come to the really good bit, as we watch Babette plan, prepare and serve the finest meal in movie history. I won’t tell you what she serves, but the menu reveals all the secrets of Babette and her past. The 12 guests, try as they might to remain immune to the seductions of the food and wine, are unwittingly brought under the spell of the elegance, richness and pure artistry of the meal and their resolve melts. They feast and smile and sigh, toast the memory of their sainted minister and celebrate the sensual pleasures of the food and drink and company. An old romance is revived. An old grudge forgiven. Old songs are sung under the stars. In the end, they recognize the artistic genius and selflessness of the hidden saint in their midst, Babette, who, with quiet grace, pours out her love and gratitude in the form of a meal, which transforms all who partake of it.