Babette’s Feast is the name of a favourite film of Jenny’s and mine. It is a gentle and moving story masterpiece that won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1987, and it’s a great one to watch again at Christmas.
The film is set in a small Lutheran community on the bleak and frigid coast of Jutland, Denmark where the living is strict, simple, sacrificial, and separated from the rest of the world. Two elderly sisters, daughters of the pastor, gave up opportunities to marry when they were young so as to remain in the village serving the church with their father. One day a mysterious Frenchwoman arrives and pleads for protection from persecution. The sisters have little money but allow her stay and in return she becomes their maid.
The film starts slowly reflecting the insularity and mundane regularity of the austere community life. Twelve years after BAbette’s arrival, the two middle-aged sisters try to carry on the mission of their deceased father, yet it proves impossible without his strict leadership and the sect slowly splinters.
As the 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth approaches the sisters want to celebrate it in a way that will help their friends. At the same time Babette receives word she has won 10,000 francs in a French lottery. Although initially expecting to leave the village, Babette eventually begs to be permitted to prepare one last supper as a gift for the community.
The meal is the climax of the film and here we learn Babette was once chef at a top Parisian restaurant. As the tired, aging and suspicious community members sit down for the meal relationships are stiff and cold. They cautiously begin to dine on Babette’s delicacies and as they do their faces show a hint of thawing. As the meal progresses it is not only their bodies that are fed, but their souls as well. Old wounds begin to heal and closed hearts are gently opened.
The film ends with the aged community members outside joining hands around the fountain rousingly singing old hymns. In the kitchen Babette sits in the middle of the mess of dirty dishes, greasy pots, and leftover food. She is tired as she talks to the sisters and reveals she has spent all her money on the meal and will be staying in the community.
The film is full of meaning for Christians as many missioligists, such as Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, have noted. That there are twelve seated at the supper is a subtle hint inviting comparisons to the Lord’s Supper. In fact it almost seems that somehow the spirit of Christ has slipped into the room and joined them in the meal, anticipating the great banquet that SScripture reminds us is yet to come. The meal itself becomes a time of deep thanksgiving and fellowship not only demonstrating the power of celebration, but like the cross, demonstrating the costliness of grace. It cost Babette all she had.
The film also reflects the heart of the mystery of Christmas. Babette’s gift ushers in the gift of grace, unasked and unearned, just as God’s grace enters our world through the birth of Jesus Christ. And just as in the incarnation God embraces our human existence and sanctifies it, Babette’s gift celebrates the good things of the world over and against the lifelessness of religious legalism.
Ultimately, however, Babette’s Feast is story of grace and reminds us how grace works: it costs the giver everything and the recipient nothing. And that’s what Christmas is all about.