Word of the Day
Above and beyond what's expected, superfluous, more than is obligated.
Above and beyond what's expected, superfluous, more than is obligated.
In late November 2016, after the election of President Donald Trump, Alyssa Wilkinson published an article at Vox suggesting Babette’s Feast as the perfect film for a family holiday gathering. There’s good reason for that. Babette’s Feast is not just an inoffensive film, it’s a transcendent one.
The central character of Babette’s Feast isn’t Babette. Rather, it’s two sisters, Filippa and Martine, daughters of an austere, Puritan-like pastor on the coast of Denmark in the late 1800s. We see the life of the girls unfold. Their father establishes a church in a small coastal town. The girls’ mother is no more, so the girls are incredibly integral to the religious work. Their father doesn’t think much of marriage, turning down one suitor with the words “Would you deprive me of my right and left hands?” Both girls are wooed, but neither marry. Instead, they stay and continue their father’s work after he is gone—for fifty years.
After 35 years, a frightened red-headed French woman appears in the middle of a stormy night with a letter. It is from Achille Papin, a world-famous opera singer who fell in love with Filippa during a chance trip to the Denmark coast. He asks the daughters to take in Babette, whose husband and son have been killed in Parisian unrest. “Babette can cook,” he writes. The sisters have no money, but Babette begs them to let her stay on, unpaid, and help in the house. The sisters oblige, and Babette stays there for fourteen years.
One day, Babette receives a telegram. She has won the lottery, receiving 10,000 francs. The sisters are resigned. Surely she will go back to Paris. But before leaving, Babette asks if she can cook dinner for them. Their church is having a 100th anniversary celebration, and she would like to cook them a proper French meal for the church and community she has served for 14 years. The sisters haltingly agree to this, and Babette sets to work.
Babette returns from a quick trip with many strange ingredients and creatures in tow. Is that a sea turtle? A /live/ sea turtle? And those are certainly quails that the tall quiet woman in the gray cape is carrying. As the dinner draws closer, the sisters grow more and more concerned. “We meant no harm,” Martine tells the dwindling church remnant. “We had no idea where it might lead. And now we’ve exposed ourselves to dangerous forces that may bring evil upon us.” The church members agree: they will not enjoy the meal. They will not say anything about it, and they will endure it as a kindness to Babette.
But what they do not anticipate is the General, Martine’s former suitor, being present for the meal. He comes as a guest of another attendee, but he is clearly an outsider. His blue uniform gilded with medals and draped with a red sash contrast with the simple black clothes of the church members. He has lived in Paris—and he has had the meal. He has also not gotten the memo about not talking about the meal. As delight after delight travels from kitchen to plate, the General grows more and more astounded, remembering aloud the best meal of his life at the Café Anglais in Paris—which these dishes were part of.
And as the meal progresses from appetizer to main course to dessert and coffee, the guests begin to crack. They begin to enjoy the meal, deeply. Near-enemies apologize to each other. Former friends reconcile. Babette’s delicacies wear them down.
And once all the guests are gone, the sisters are alone with Babette. Then we find out that we were wrong all along. Yes, Babette was a cook at Café Anglais, probably the best cook in Paris. But she is not going back. She has spent all her winnings on this meal. For these people, aged and awaiting death, of a different country, who cannot repay her, who have not wanted to eat the fruit of her labors, who have eaten gruel for years and do not know just what they have been given.
Friends, I’m not sure there is a better movie about love than Babette’s Feast. I’m sitting here recounting the story for you, and I’m marveling at the story as I retell it. Babette’s gesture is beyond opulence. It is extravagant, sacrificial, and pastoral. It is a positive version of laying down your life for another: using your talents in a way that people cannot help but be blessed by in a way that does you no benefit.
Truthfully, the sisters are the ones who should understand this best. They may not be able to cook as Babette can, but the movie chronicles fifty years of their love, expressed in action. Though both could have married and married well, they supported their father. Though both could have fled, they stayed in a poor town. Though both could have conserved their resources and strength as they aged, they lived simply so they could spend time and energy caring for the needy in the town. The sisters are a beautiful picture of sacrificial love too.
But they do not understand the strange linkage between body and soul. Their self-denial goes too far. When Achille Papin asks/suggests/woos Filippa to come to Paris with him, he notes that by her singing, “you will distract the rich and comfort the poor.” Papin’s comment is true, but there’s more to it than that. The scenes where he and Philippa sing are majestic. When we watch them, we are enthralled—and uncomfortable, as we don’t know what Philippa will do as Papin grows increasingly earnest in his pursuit. But the music! There is such beauty in it. We rejoice as we listen.
Similarly, Babette ministers to the physical needs of the guests, transforming them spiritually and physically. As their bodies are renewed, their souls realign. They may not fully grasp that the good gifts of the world are to be enjoyed, but they understand what has happened to them. Babette’s dinner is a needed lesson, delivered in the most delicious and gentle way possible.
I think one of the interesting things about Babette’s Feast is that we get to see the effects of sacrificial love so clearly. The change in Babette’s guests is immediate and obvious, but the fact that there are guests to begin with is the effects of the sisters’ devotion and generosity. The general would not have been present except for the effects of Martine on him. Babette would not have been there if not for the kindness of Achille Papin, who is himself affected by the effects of Philippa on him.
In the Bible, one of the phrases used to describe Heaven is “The Marriage Feast of the Lamb.” It is a picture of total, long-awaited bliss. At long last, those who have received mercy are gathered together to praise their Savior and rejoice in their salvation. It is also a deeply sensuous image, full of rich imagery. Think about the best meal you’ve had, the best party you’ve ever been to, and the best wedding you’ve ever seen, then combine them all and amplify that feeling more than you can imagine. That’s the picture of Heaven. And so, when Babette cooks such a meal for this poor group, it is Heaven coming down to earth. is it any wonder that the film ends with Martine’s joy-filled exclamation, “In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!”
There are many ways to look at love. There are many ways to perform it. Some of them involve listening, talk, and empathy; others require action. Babette’s Feast encourages us to perform them both. It reminds us that caring for physical needs is important too. And it does this by showing us what it is like to receive care. May we all be as loving as Babette, as Filippa and Martine, as our Father.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” - Matthew 25:34–40
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MoviesBabette's FeastHeavenDinner is servedEmbodied soulsEarthly delight, heavenly rewardChekov's Gun?