Babette’s Feast snagged the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film of 1988 and was a huge art-house hit. There were times in 1988 when it seemed like the film would never leave theaters. (In fact, I came to resent the film, since it was playing at the only theater within 100 miles that was likely to book Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance, which I’d been waiting on for months.) Yet somehow for all that, it’s a movie I had never caught up with until this past weekend. Did it live up to its award-winning reputation? In the main, I’d say yes. This fairly simple little work about the power of French cuisine to defrost even the strictest Protestant dogma and propriety—the food is prepared by Babette (Stéphane Audran), a Parisian refugee working for two very religious spinsters in rural Denmark—is pretty close to irresistible. And its underlying themes of personal expression and identity are charming and universal.
One of the things that makes the film resonate is that while its destination is pretty easy to determine in broad strokes, the specifics manage to be surprising. Very often the film plays against expectation—even against our own wishes—but it always feels right. The dinner itself—while remarkable—is likely to appall some viewers. I can’t say I personally find the idea of festooning a quail dish with the birds’ heads appealing, but this is probably more a cultural thing than anything else. Some of the rustic humor is a little forced. Is even the most innocent of bucolics likely to conclude that Veuve Clicquot “must be some kind of lemonade”? Probably not, but these are minor quibbles with a film as good-hearted as this one.