And here's the foodie portion of the Criterion Collection. I mean that sincerely. Babette's Feast came out just as our obsession with food was taking off. It was the first of the foodie classics. The others being Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate. The Food Network would start just a few years afterward.
I'd seen Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman before so I was pretty excited to see this one. I have to admit I wasn't as into it in the first half though. Maybe that's because I was anticipating the feast too much. The story is very simple. In a remote Danish village, two elderly sisters continue the work of their father, a strict Calvinist minister. Their only companion is a French woman named Babette who escaped political violence in her home country. One day Babette wins the French lottery. The sisters think they are losing their companion so they grant her one request, that she prepare a fancy French feast to celebrate the birthday of their deceased father. The sisters agree but being strict Calvinists they are appalled at the idea of indulging in anything, especially food.
The beginning does set up some important background. Both sisters had suitors who play a part in the story. One is a young army officer who is madly in love with one sister. But he leaves when he realizes she will never marry him. Years later the man returns to partake in the feast. Having served in the Royal court he is, at first, the only one who truly appreciates the culinary treasure before him. The second suitor is a French opera star who discovers one sister has a voice like an angel. He gives her lessons but later returns home also disillusioned. But years later it's because of him that Babette becomes their maid and companion.
While the first half may have been a little slow the ending more than makes up for it. The feast lives up to its reputation. Maybe food porn existed before this movie but this raised the bar. But more than that the sequence is hilarious. The sisters, upon seeing the ingredients, sea turtle, cow's head, chicken feet, utterly panic. And most people today would freak out too. We haven't changed that much. They warn their friends in the village, also strict Calvinists that they can't be sure what they'll be forced to eat.
At first the sisters and their guests timidly poke at their dishes. But the magic of Babette's cooking can't be denied. The guests enjoy themselves in spite of it all. More than that they begin to experience joy. In a critical scene prior to the feast the community was shown as bitter and riven with feuds. But during the feast the old slights are forgotten. Everyone is too happy to mad with each other any more. And that's when the film really works. It captures that moment that Tony Shaloub talks about in Big Night. He says (paraphrasing) that to cook a great meal is to come a little bit closer to God. And at the end of this meal that's how these people feel.
I liked this one but not as much as I thought I would. I should have gotten to it earlier. There are are other foodie movies now and more are coming. But this one set the table for what was to come. The directing is solid. The writing is good. It's a fine template to study. If you haven't seen this one, Big Night or Eat Drink Man Woman, see this one first.