We began the month with an homage to the grilled cheese sandwich, I would like to close it with Babette’s Feast. The grilled cheese is delightful, but (because some of us are irredeemable food snobs) perhaps a proper, French feast is in order?
I can recall no worse dining experience than the food that is from time to time served on airplanes. I was recently forced to board an airplane and ride it through the sky to New Jersey for a work-related purpose. Airplanes fill me with anxiety. Not fear of heights, mind you, no, it is delightful and awe-inspiring to relax in a chair that flies through the sky by some unexplainable magic. I mostly fear two types of encounters, those with germs and those with bad food. With this in mind, I basically cross my arms over my chest, sit in my chair, and refuse to touch anything, eat, or breathe too deeply for the duration of the flight. It is a sort of totemic ritual by which comfort is derived.
To soothe my overburdened soul, I brought along a copy of Babette’s Feast to watch. I had never seen it and wasn’t sure what to expect but was soon enraptured. So much so that it was somewhat of a disappointment when landing preparations began and the movie hadn’t quite finished. I wouldn’t have minded circling the runway a few times.
Babette’s Feast is almost 30 years old now, which is to me the definition of a cutting-edge new release (I’m making a habit of on-the-spot cultural commentary), but I imagine I may divulge the plot with no fear of reprisal. It’s rather simple, really. Two sisters are the daughters of a deceased fundamentalist preacher. Each in the past has turned away a suitor in order to remain at the time with her father. One of these suitors later sends a French refugee, Babette, to live with the sisters. She does so for many years, cooking and doing other housework until a windfall from the lottery gives her the funds to splurge on ingredients to cook a great feast. This feast she prepares and gives for the sisters and the remaining religious followers of their late father. That is the entire plot.
It doesn’t sound like much, right? It seems to me that there is a refreshing quality about a film that refuses high-concept plot and instead spends time with characters and atmosphere. The glacial northern air seeps through the screen and envelops the viewer. The pace is slow and time is given to express the interiority of the events. It all unfolds delicately and with great nuance, as a proper French feast ought.
There is beauty in the details. A stray remark by one of the religious adherents betrays hidden resentments underlying the proper, puritanical exterior of the sect. The cold sea wind brings with it spiritual depression. A typical meal is a form of gruel. All of this is set on edge by Babette, who causes the arrival of a giant tortoise destined to become one of the courses in a meal that is now suspected by the villagers to be a satanic feast. General Lorenz (one of the long ago-suitors returned for a visit) savors a spoonful of broth. Bright eyed, surprised glances light up the table. From course to course, the feast is found to be more enjoyable and distrust morphs into quiet happiness. Finally, we are left with a scene of the revelers dancing about the town square holding hands and singing a hymn. The feast has changed them. The stars seem closer. God has become more real.
During the meal General Lorenz, who has spent time in France, reminisces about a similar meal he has had in Paris at the famous Café Anglais. The food there had the quality of bringing about reconciliation amongst those who partook. Babette’s Feast is not mere food, it is spiritual communion. The excellence of preparation bears with it the virtue of love itself. Many of us, I suspect, have had a meal with friends and family like this from time to time. Many of us, I pray, have been graced by this very meal in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the meal towards which all others aspire.
The feast costs Babette all of her money. She is not able, as had been assumed by everyone else, to use the money to return to France. Perhaps it is her sacrifice that makes this meal so special (it is no coincidence that she wears a cross necklace). We are changed into what we receive and what is received is the total self-gift of the chef. Babette considers the exchange to be one in which she gains. She has given all she has, but she will never be poor.
In some mysterious way, artistic endeavor and love and beauty and goodness and truth are all bound up together, the one leading to all of the others. An artist suffers in the creating but becomes truly rich in the giving, by allowing others to participate in what has been created. Art binds mankind together. The mystical communion of saints knows no bounds. General Lorenz, speaking to his long lost love after the feast, gives an inspired benediction:
I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that…You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.
A human being is more than a soul to be freed from the temptations of the physical world. A human being is a soul expressed in physical form. Because of this, we understand that there is beauty and joy and spiritual good to be had in something as simple as a feast, which is not merely food but rather a mediation of the communion of saints. It is not for nothing that Our Lord compares heaven to a feast. It is not for nothing that he chooses to come to us under the aspects of bread and wine.