When all deadlines are met and time is out in my favor, one can usually find me sitting comfortably on the couch with a bowl of popcorn on one hand and a remote control on the other. Watching movies has always been one of my favorite leisure. Although I try to see films from different parts of the world as much as I can, perhaps like the many others who belong in my generation, Hollywood movies are always top of the list. Seldom do I find fascination with other international productions especially European ones. They are slow-paced, often more serious and “less entertaining” than those produced in Hollywood.
However, watching the Danish film “Babette’s Feast” made me reconsider and view European films with a different lens – one with a little more appreciation and interest. While the slow pacing is inherent to this kind of cinema, they also present a different style and meat altogether, leaving more room for its audience to think rather than just instant gratification offered by most American movies. This is very evident in Babette’s Feast. In its subtlety and simplicity, together with the use of brilliant metaphors and symbolisms, it was able to uncover the transforming power of art with beauty and sophistication.
Babette’s Feast tells the story of two pious sisters whose lives were changed by their French servant, who was apparently an unspoken artist, Babette. One of the images that constantly reappear all throughout the movie, especially in the beginning, is the image of the dried fish. This symbolizes the life of Martina and Philippa and perhaps even those in the community who was devoted to the preaching of their father that to attain salvation, one must deprive himself all physical or worldly pleasures including food. They lived a life of unhealthy simplicity and unreasonable meagerness. Their simple and puritan way of living is so extreme that it has become dreary and ironically “lifeless”, like a dried fish in contrast to the delectable meal of Babette in the end. Another powerful symbolism is Babette’s washing of the window from the outside.
It speaks to me as if Babette was trying to show the sisters what they have been missing for the longest time. Their world and their lives are similar to the dirty windows Babette were washing – dark and clouded by their austere beliefs. Because of the hyperbolic focus on spirituality, they were blinded from the beauty and joy of the outside world, from the other things that life has to offer including the love from men they rejected when they were young. Through Babette’s feast, which they initially refuted as they believed it was sinful, the sisters were opened to a new world from which they were hiding, to a reality where “righteousness and bliss [..] kiss”, where the spirit and the flesh are both nourished and nurtured without choosing or isolating one from the other. This reconciliation is symbolized by the candlelight snuffed out in the end.
Aside from Babette’s art which is the sumptuous food she prepared very well, another integral element that played a significant role in the transformation of the sisters and the other members of the congregation is the character of General Loewenhielm, one of the sisters’ ex lover. If the sisters lived a deprived life, a deprivation not of accident but of choice, the general was at the other end of the spectrum. He symbolizes everything the sisters were not – luxurious and powerful.
He enjoyed a life of abundance and glory. Because of this background, the general honestly and wholeheartedly enjoyed the feast while the others remained skeptical, refusing to surrender to their delight of the food. It was also the general who had this realization that there is joy both from bodily and spiritual nourishment, as he was dumfounded to partake in such kind of dinner in an unexpected place, considering it then as a grace and blessing from the heavens.
All in all, Babette as an artist was successful. Like a masterpiece that brings joy to its audience, her feast was able to transform and bring love and happiness on the table, to the people who received her art. And this is what is meant by her statement, “an artist is never poor.” Her talent, which was able to transcend the material, and her ability to do her very best, is her wealth.
Indeed, art has a very strong power to transform. Not only did Babette’s art transformed the characters in the story but the movie itself, as a form of art, was able to transform its viewers, me included. It may not be able to provide the “fun” from the thrilling and idealistic yet shallow plot of Hollywood movies but it was able to deliver something deeper and more delicate, something worthy of admiration and appreciation.