“She had appeared to be a beggar; she turned out to be a conqueror.”
Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast
My mom died in 2008, when I was twenty years old. I could start any piece of writing this way, and the urge to do so is often overwhelming. Her death, at the age of forty-nine, has for the past seven years been the dividing line from which I separate the “after” from the “before” of my life. Any memory I now have is sorted between these two categories – the world with my mom in it, and the world without. When she was sick and dying from that insentient enemy, cancer, during my second year of university, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in bed at night. All I could think about was how utterly vile Rand’s tale of individualist idealism was in a world where mothers died. Everything I did, or didn’t do, was informed by grief. The sometimes impersonal universe of academics suddenly seemed like a ridiculous space to which I didn’t belong. Deadlines, assignments, and obligations became devoid of meaning. It frustrated me to know that for most, the world was no different than it had been before. It was as if a giant had put his foot directly in my path, but no one else noticed or cared that I would now have to walk into the thicket, unaware of where I was going and unsure of how I was supposed to get there.
Of course, my vision of a straightforward path in life was only ever an illusion. There are always giants ready to step out at any moment and re-route you, whether you wish for it or not. Three months after my mom died, my university theatre department put on a stage adaptation of Karen Blixen’s short story Babette’s Feast. I know that I went to see my friends perform, but I don’t remember what I thought. Its tale of redemption and love slipped through my mind. I was too preoccupied by finding the strength to get dressed every morning, or conjuring a smile for old friends, to make room for any new stories. A month after seeing the play, I’d be making my first Christmas turkey dinner alone, completely unsure of what I was doing. Having never learned to cook a turkey from my mom, somehow hoping it would never be necessary, I took pointers from Martha Stewart and rued the day someone had first suggested that turkey would be an appropriate foodstuff for the alleged happiest day of the year.
Anyone who has suffered loss know how it changes the holidays. I wish I could tell you that seven years on these times now pass by painlessly, but for me, that hasn’t been so. In one week it will be Christmas – another day to mark the lamentable “after-ness” of things. The sting is less pointed, yes, but as December creeps on I feel a sense of dread that the old comforts can’t shake. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life, one of my mom’s favourite movies, takes on a new meaning. Hearing “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” playing at the grocery store as I load up my basket with too many Terry’s Chocolate Oranges seems like an exercise in irony. Waiting in the extra-long lineups at the stores makes me feel like a pious monk wearing a hairshirt, as I grit my teeth and think to myself, I am doing this for a reason. As much as I adore Christmas carols, the lights, and the cheese of it all, I’ve started to operate under the assumption that most of us secretly despise some aspect of our Christmas obligations. I know I am not the only one living in a world of darkened afters, and for many, their afters are much more tortuous than mine could ever be. The circumstances of our pain may be familiar – lost parents, sick children, broken love affairs, estranged family, old betrayals – but to us, suffering feels so particular and personal. When we gather at the dinner table for the holidays, we are each lost in our own stories.
Babette’s Feast is not strictly a Christmas movie. But I’m not much for tradition (did I mention that I haven’t cooked another turkey since my first attempt in 2008?), so for my purposes today, it is a Christmas film as much as anything else. Babette’s Feast is faithfully adapted from Karen Blixen’s story which first appeared in the June 1950 edition of Ladies Home Journal under the author’s pen name, Isak Dinesen. The short fable can be read in twenty minutes, which is what I did after watching the film (the story is included as an insert with the Criterion DVD edition). This is not an intricate tale. No angels appear halfway through to save the protagonist, as no one is in need of saving. It is a fairy tale in need of a fairy, and yet, somehow, its effect is magic. Two beautiful elderly sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), live secluded in a tiny, quiet village on the coast of Denmark. Their father, a beloved pastor of a small congregation of Lutheran faithful, has long passed away, leaving Filippa and Martine to tend to the old and increasingly sour devotees of their father’s church. The days in the village are simple and predictable, as the sisters prefer for the sake of their religious piety, but as time passes and the former ways of life are lost with age, old conflicts are recalled and Martine and Filippa find themselves moderating increasingly disruptive Bible studies. Gathered around the simple wooden table, their friends are no longer able to hold their tongues for the sake of graciousness, and instead spend their time plumbing the depths of old resentments. We discover through flashback that the sisters, too, harbour their own haunted memories. This asceticism and bickering is only the “after” part of their lives.
Filippa and Martine would have had their choice of husbands in their youth. Their beauty and kindness draws the attention of all the young men in town, however, their father carefully guards the daughters to ensure that they remain focused on spiritual matters and, one imagines, that they stay close to home. For both Filippa and Martine, the chance for love and escape come from two outsiders to their cloistered world. Lorens Löwenhielm, a calvary officer staying nearby with his aunt as a form of forced atonement for his reckless misdeeds and ungentlemanly excesses, finds himself instantly drawn to Martine’s beauty and her quiet, angelic way. In her he sees the potential to start his life anew, and so he begins attending the pastor’s meetings just to be near Martine and to understand their way of life. It is not long, however, before Lorens realizes that he is an outsider in this pious world, and that Martine will not be likely to leave this way of life to live lushly as the wife of a calvary officer. He leaves her, vowing that someday he will make a success of himself (as the rejected are wont to do), and that this loss will be but a pebble in the riverbed of his life.
Filippa too must experience her own life-defining moment when she rejects the love and glamorous life offered to her by infatuated opera singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont). Filippa’s clarion soprano voice is an overwhelming discovery for Achille, and he vows to make her famous, if only she will train with him and travel the world. But for Filippa, the earthly pleasures of love and acclaim are too frightening, and so she rejects Achille in favour of the simple, devout life her father has taught her. Like Lorens, Achille must carry on a life after rejection, while Martine and Filippa spend the remaining decades of their lives among the people of the village they were born to. They continue on, undisturbed in their simple life of ascetic habits and acts of service, until one day many years later, a stranger appears on their doorstep.
Babette Hersant (Stephane Audran) has traveled from her homeland in France to the only shelter she has been offered, at the suggestion of Filippa’s old flame, Achille. Babette’s husband and son have been killed during counter-revolutionary political upheaval in Paris, and having nowhere else to seek refuge, she offers her services as a housekeeper to the two sisters. Filippa and Martine live lives of thrift, and so while they cannot afford to pay Babette, they offer to let her stay with them. And so, for fourteen years, Babette serves her benefactors and becomes a beloved member of the small community. Alone in the world, she is a mystery to the sisters, but her unobtrusive respect of their devotion to the ministry of their father proves useful over the years. Babette learns the ways of the village and adapts to the simple lifestyle of Martine and Filippa, cooking and cleaning for them without complaint as the years slip away.
In spite of the near-saintly paths to which she is routed, Babette incorporates small touches of her former life into her service for the two sisters. Instead of making the vile-looking ale and bread soup and salt fish that the sisters prefer to prepare as part of their unfussy, sacrificial habits, Babette prepares delicious soups for the poor and sickly, picking her own herbs in her free time. There is more to Babette than meets the eye, which only becomes more apparent when Babette receives a letter indicating that she has won 10,000 francs in the lottery. Martine and Filippa worry that Babette will no longer have any use for them, but having nowhere to go and no family in Paris to return to, Babette finds a more unusual use for her money than a life of luxury.
Babette insists to the sisters that she be allowed to purchase and prepare a meal for an upcoming dinner party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Filippa and Martine’s father. Reluctant though they are to appear extravagant, the sisters do concede that Babette has asked for nothing during her long stay with the sisters, and so she is given permission to create a meal for them. This allowance has some unintended consequences for Filippa and Martine, and as they witness the arrival of the ingredients which Babette transports to the village (including a live tortoise, a cage full of quails, and many bottles of wine), they become more and more concerned that the dinner party will be an embarrassment of riches. Martine has a hellish dream about the dinner, imagining herself and the congregants as participants in a damnable feast which will overthrow their years of practiced self-restraint. Terrified, Martine gathers the congregation and they each agree to ignore the fleshly pleasures of the meal, vowing never to discuss anything so unholy at the celebration of their beloved pastor. It is the one thing these feuding friends can agree upon.
No spiritual certainty, however, can prepare the congregation for the feast that Babette has created and the power it will hold over them. On December 15th, the birthday of Martine and Filippa’s father, they gather around a table unlike any they have ever seen. At the table, too, is Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle), meeting Martine again for the first time in the many decades since their impossible love affair. Lorens has indeed achieved everything he set out to achieve, having become a General and marrying a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. He has eaten the finest food in the world, conquered in many battles, and yet an unrequited sense of loneliness lives in him. This loneliness has perhaps lingered on in Martine as well, but loneliness is often a private affair which makes itself known only during moments of celebration. It is in these heightened moments of tradition and festivity that we are reminded of celebrations long past, when things were better.
Babette creates a truly French meal for the guests. Her overflowing kitchen, filled with steaming pots, fresh fruits, and bubbling bottles of champagne, is a glimpse into the secret past of Babette. Somewhere within her, for the past fourteen years, has been the dormant ability to create a meal of this level of artistry and care. The congregants for a time hold to their promise of ignoring the delights of their dinner, but successive dished served with successive wines loosen the resolve of these pious few. Lorens, full of worldly experience, can hardly believe his eyes. The cosmopolitan quality of the Parisian meal is not lost on him as it is the other dinner guests. And yet, for their lack of knowledge and their desire to maintain spiritual purity, the magical effect of Babette’s feast washes over all just as it washes over Lorens. The effect is sealed when Lorens stands to recite, as the beloved pastor had so many years ago, that “Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” It is a moment of reconciliation with the past. Lorens reminds the guests of the mercy and redemption the pastor believed in, and in doing so, embodies the reparation and love Babette has sought to express through her cooking. Animosity is washed away in favour of a playful acceptance of the past and a forgiveness for all things that only live on in memory.
What we soon discover about Babette is that before the deaths of her husband and child, and before arriving in the tiny village, she had been the head chef at Cafe Anglais in Paris, where she had once been feted for creating the finest dishes of the age. In spite of all that she has lost, which now includes the entire 10,000 francs she won in the lottery (all spent on the feast), she has gained all that she could hope to gain in her life after loss. She has, once again, fully expressed herself through her chosen art of cooking. When Filippa questions why on Babette would choose once again to be poor, she informs her that an artist can never be poor, and then quotes her old friend Achille Papin: Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.
Like most fables, Babette’s Feast is a tale simply told. But stories, no matter how simple, can have profound consequences on the people who connect with them. My mom loved movies about redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie she sat down to watch every Christmas, is about exactly that. Redemption stories at Christmastime are particularly poignant because something about the holiday – the pomp, the family gatherings, the expectations – sets our memories to simmer. Long-forgotten thoughts are stirred with the sight of an old Christmas decoration, or the smell of a family recipe. Every gathering reminds us of those we have lost and those we are no longer comfortable being near. Sometimes we are the sources of the discomfort for our own families. Like the sect in Babette’s Feast, it can sometimes take us years to discover that no set of rules or self-denials will protect us from our pasts or guide us safely into our futures.
You don’t have to be religious to long for second chances. I grew up in a traditionally Lutheran town (my university, once a religious college, has a statue of Martin Luther on the grounds), and was raised Lutheran. The religiously loaded message of Christmas stopped resonating for me a long time ago, so it’s not for traditionally familiar reasons that Babette’s Feast is my proposal for a Christmas film for those in pain. You can, of course, take from it what you will in regards to your own spiritual background. You can also choose to see the film as an allegory on the transformative power of food and community. But I would suggest something even simpler. For me, the interesting part of Babette’s Feast isn’t the reconciliation experienced by the congregation at the end of the film. Nor is it the unexpected peace felt by the two sisters when they submit to an experience unfamiliar to them. These are marvelous things to witness. But what interests me is not what happens, but what Babette does, without expectation. In a film full of people meandering unhappily through the “after” part of their lives, Babette takes her one opportunity to create and express herself in the deepest, fullest way she knows how. Very little is discussed in the film of Babette’s traumatic loss of her family. When I watch her prepare the feast, what I see is her deep love and deep grief transformed into something of impact not only for herself, but for her guests as well. But the impact to her guests is beyond her control, and yet she undertakes her feast anyway. Babette is no mere servant, nor does her culinary prowess come from a place of motherly care. Babette is a courageous artist. And when great artists are given space to express themselves to their full capacity, the incredible side-effect is that sometimes, we all get to benefit.
Babette’s Feast was released in Denmark on August 28, 1987. My mom would die on August 28, twenty-one years later, when I was twenty years old. I love her so much, and miss her in ways that are so indescribable that attempting to put the feeling into words seems somehow sacrilegious. And yet, it’s not. What choices do we have in life? To suffer in austerity, or to express ourselves to the full extent of our abilities. In an interview for the special features of the Criterion release of Babette’s Feast, director Gabriel Axel explains that, above all, his film is about love. My mom was very shy, and yet, she sat and spoke with unnumbered patients as a nurse, caring for them to the full extent of her art – her love was on display each and every day, in big ways and in small. Your art may be something different. Perhaps you love to sing. Maybe you love to take photographs. Or perhaps you sew, or write, or are an expert at moderating arguments within your family. Whatever your art might be, particularly if you are feeling like you are in the “after” part of your life, make it unmistakable. The only control you have in life is over your own self-expression. Holidays can be painful because they hold up our lack of control in front of us, like a fun house mirror, displaying the mangled lives we can avoid looking at for the rest of the year. Sometimes I don’t have the courage to accept that my mom is gone, especially at Christmastime. But I can have the courage to write this, and to take any opportunity I can to express myself. And once the food leaves the kitchen, so to speak, my moment of control is over. And that’s where the joy begins.