Can there be an epic almost exclusively filmed within one house? Except for three brief scenes, Babette’s Feast is set within the confines of a remote community in Jutland, but there is no doubt it is a story greater than its surroundings. What seems to be a quiet, intimate movie revolving around two sisters, their small community, and their nearly silent servant is, in the end, an epic.
Babette’s Feast takes a few moments to develop into a coherent story, perhaps because it doesn’t take the time to do so. Plot-driven movies will often laboriously explain their premise within the first few scenes, often before the title shot—as if they were excusing their labor and relegating the scenes to the ambiguous role of a prelude. Babette’s Feast, on the other hand, is presented to us by four episodes, only loosely strung together. That is not to say, however, that there is some disconnect between the scenes, that there is incongruity. It is a single presentation, unified, when by nothing else, by the mode of presentation. The pieces are not truly vignettes, but would only be so if told orally by the inexperienced: If I were to explain the scenes to you one after the other, you might well wonder whether I were telling a single tale, or might well believe I was developing one of those elaborate jokes which end in terrible puns.
Babette, a poor Frenchwoman, does not seize the stage, but enters unobtrusively after the other prominent figures have been introduced. We are initially presented with an old man and his daughters. There is something strange about this pious family (I’m not certain I willing call them a family, as the daughters seem to have sprung from their father’s piety instead of his loins). What this is we are left to wonder, but our uneasiness is corroborated by the visits of two foreigners, one of whom, instrumentally, is a papist. There is no doubt there is an absence in the lives of the sisters, but it is only with the arrival of Babette and her asking of a favor that it is revealed.
What does it mean to give one’s very best, as Babette asks to do? As humans, we have a gift unique among animals, we have the image of God in our makeup, and the brotherhood of Christ in our blood. This means that we have in our possession something truly greater than ourselves; if in our art we were to be satisfied with mere self-expression we would be dealing in drivel. Art becomes more trivial, and perhaps more dangerous, the closer it comes to an artist, and the further it falls from the Truth. But when Truth Himself is the artist, perfect art is perfect self-expression; it is, in fact, Himself.
The circumspect introduction of Babette, and further, of the unifying culmination of her art, is in keeping with her role in the film. She is both a servant asking without pretense for a place in the household, and the true artist without sinful pride, asking only that she might ‘give her very best’; she is a Christ-figure, and her feast a replaying of the meal on the road to Emmaus, with a world-weary general as a disciple. The sisters are not comfortable with Babette; after all, she is a foreigner, and likely a papist. They do not wish to part from her, and yet they only apprehensively give way to her desires. They are neither content with having a servant nor particularly happy to help a stranger in need, although duty and their father’s memory drive them on—and perhaps they only know strangers, for sacrifice has no place in their lives. But it is the sacrifice of Babette, the giving of her best, which permits their acceptance of the Love which they had once rejected.