Babette’s Feast and the Spirit of the Holidays

French actress Stéphane Audran died this year at 85. Audran had a long career and more than 100 film and TV credits. She worked with directors Luis Buñuel, Éric Rohmer, and former husband Claude Chabrol, was in The Big Red One with Lee Marvin, and played the title character in the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.

Babette’s Feast is Pope Francis’ favorite film, he has said, and is “probably the first film ever to be mentioned in a papal document.” It might seem like an odd choice for a pope, since the film is set in a grim little Protestant village on the coast of Jutland, in about 1883, and its climactic scene is a sumptuous, even decadent, multi-course meal in the manner of a famous Parisian restaurant of the time. (The best I can tell by historical conversion calculators, the meal for 12 costs a quarter- to half-a-million dollars in today’s currency.) The film could be seen as the defeat of religious piety and asceticism by worldliness.

But in the way that Groundhog Day—a resurrection tale with Bill Murray in full comic mode—became an unexpected hit with religious leaders of all types, Feast can be seen to express catholic religious ideals.

Feast is about two elderly sisters whose dead father founded a pious sect. The villagers were his flock and try to keep on with his teachings; “their communication was yea yea and nay nay, and they called one another Brother and Sister,” as the original story says. The women had been great beauties with recognized artistic talents—one was believed capable of singing in the Paris Opera—but they shunned the world by never leaving their father or marrying.

One night the elderly sisters take in a woman who collapses in their doorway with a letter of introduction from one of the sister’s unrequited loves of youth, now a famous general. The woman, Babette, is a refugee from the Paris Commune of 1871, and her husband and son have been killed as Communards. That is about all the sisters know of Babette, who they hesitatingly agree to let work as their maid and cook, and it is about all they know of her for a dozen years.

After that time in service to them and their religious community, she wins the French lottery and makes her first and only request of them: She would like to cook and pay for a big meal on their father’s birthday, a proper French meal to replace the haddock and porridge of their daily lives. They are tremulous. Frogs! Snails! The sea turtle with its serpent’s neck! And wine! But they agree to allow her wish, as Babette has been a good and faithful servant, and they believe she will leave them now to go back to France.

The meal she prepares for the sisters, the villagers, and the famous general, who shows up unexpectedly, is a work of art that brings everyone together in a moment of grace. When it is over Babette explains to the sisters that all her lottery money is gone, and she will stay to serve them. It is the perfect holiday movie, with warm cinematography, quiet good humor, a theme of communion and a portrayal of the process of cooking, as well as Audran’s perfect performance.

The short story is by Isak Dinesen, pen name of Karen Blixen, whose memoir Out of Africa was adapted for the Redford-Streep film. “Babette’s Feast” and other stories in her collection Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard are actually moral tales, like late-stage Tolstoy, relying on telling, broad summary instead of scene-setting, a focus on the past. They convey themes that could be read as religious, such as selflessness and modesty.

Though it is available online, I wanted to re-read the story by the tactile experience of holding the book. To my surprise, the only copy in the Wash U libraries is in Special Collections. The librarian had me sign in, fill out paperwork, put my coat and bag in a locker, take a seat, and wait. After a time an assistant brought the book out, and the librarian set it in a foam cradle. It is just the 1993 Vintage paperback edition but was owned by a seminal literary couple at the University.

I fell into the tale quickly and was delighted by the texture and details lost in the film adaptation, as good as it is. Among other things, Babette in the tale is suspected of being a pétroleuse, an arsonist, which adds to the old sisters’ fear of her and what evil the flames of cookery will produce. Religious motifs abound, and one of the aging sister’s faces is described as beginning to turn to alabaster. Overall, the tone is quiet, holy doom, absolved by the joys of the physical world.

Stories’ starts and ends carry heightened importance, and in this story’s ending two things stand out. The first is the cry of Babette, who has collapsed (this time) from her labors: “I am a great artist!” It is a wonderfully prideful thing to say, and counterbalances her generosity to the sisters.

The second is one of the sister’s reply, as she grasps Babette, who is now “like a marble monument”: “’I feel, Babette, that this is not the end. In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be! Ah!’ she added, the tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Ah, how you will enchant the angels!’” It is an ending fit for a pope.