a movie for the winter solstice
Note. This article is about the original theatrical release of this film, and the original story by Karen Blixen, combined with historical events related to the story and film. Please see the new note at the end of the article regarding the different versions of the movie.
Each year around the the winter holidays I think of certain movies. I could list more than one, and have done so in the past. None of the movies I think of for the holiday season have a theme of Christmas, and in Babette’s Feast there is not a mention of Christmas or any decor that we would associate with Christmas. But the light of the winter solstice on planet earth is unmistakeable, no matter where you come from. If, due to planetary shift, the winter solstice eventually comes to be in March, it will be recognizable. For now, it happens in December and it is this light we perceive in the later parts of the film.
I saw this movie first in a theater. Then I would get it from a VHS rental place. The first time I learned that it was not always in stock, so in subsequent years I reserved it and invited friends over to watch it with me. It was usually around Christmas, but sometimes it was Thanksgiving. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie. I didn’t keep count. I’d see it again and again.
In recent times, annually, I’ve tried to learn a little more about the film. The story the film is based on was written by Karen Blixen, writing at the time as Isak Dineson. She also wrote Out of Africa, which you may remember was also made into a movie. The difference between the two movies was that Out of Africa, the book, was a memoir and the movie was based on interpretations, another book and two others: the screenplay and the director’s. Babette’s Feast was a fictional short story and the director spent fourteen years making the film and kept meticulously close to the story.
I love the spiritual sense that I get from the film. I don’t agree with those who claim that it’s about religion, for example a professor who made it seem to be Lutheranism versus Catholicism, declaring Catholicism victorious, as he lectured from a Catholic university. The religious iconography in the movie are facts, not product placements; this is what these characters did, this is how these characters lived. Karen Blixen was not selling religion, she was telling a story. She might be described as a pantheist. The first short story in the book where Babette’s Feast appears begins with a boy who studies the Koran.
One writer, David Schimpf, compared Babette’s Feast, the film, with Dostoyevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov. I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who thought of that. Schimpf points to the General as Alyosha however, while I see Alyosha in Babette. At times, I see the General, as he presides over the dinner, as Buddha, even though his speeches contain biblical clippings and quotes from the father of the sisters, a minister whose remembrance is being honored at the dinner.
Speaking of the sisters, one of them reminds me of June Lochart. June Lochart was the mother in the original TV series, Lost in Space and before that she was the mother in the TV series Lassie. I know it’s an odd, discontinuous thought, but it also seems natural to me to imagine that June Lochart (or the mother from Lost in Space) retired to a village in Norway after all this time.
Another writer, Jean Schuler, saw Kierkegaard in the General. The General’s speeches at the dinner were perhaps modeled after Kierkegaard, but I don’t think the General was intended as the embodiment of Kierkegaard. I think the story was, in part, an homage to Kierkegaard. While the academics, pastors, and professors, talk about the movie as if it were about religion, if we replaced religion with any other either/or the story would remain intact. When Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or he was saying: this is how earthlings think, but this is not the whole. The spirituality I perceive in the story is everything at once, over time. The gestalt. If any other parts of the story were missing, the story would not stand. But replace religion with any thing else you can think of, any other polemic, and the story would hold up.
The thing I wanted to know a little more this time was what was happening with Babette before she came to the sisters. The movie tells us the basics briefly, but does not focus on Babette’s past. In 1871 in France there was an uprising, sometimes called the French Revolution but not the same one that began near the end of the 18th century; this one is sometimes called the Paris Commune. We can think of it today as something like the Occupy Movement With Firepower. In the written story we understand a bit more. Writing as Dineson, Blixen tells us, in Babette’s voice: I loaded the guns [for the rebels]. And here we can impute an autobiographical detail. In her personal journals, Karen Blixen records that when Nazis came to her door in Denmark she entertained them while harboring Jews in the cellar. Which side of the either/or was Babette? She was a renown artist-chef; she served the bourgeois, yet when the uprising came, she was a revolutionary.
When Babette offers to make a French dinner for the sisters and their small party, no one knows that General Lorens Löwenhielm will attend. The General, a former suitor of one of the sisters, was a patron at Café Anglais where Babette was a famous chef. When the sisters accept Babette’s gift they do not know what is entailed. When they see the provisions arriving, they think the dinner will be something satanic. Only the General recognizes the courses.
Café Anglais was a real place, but some of the dishes are Blixen’s creation by way of Babette. The reason for Babette’s exile is explained in a short note in the movie, an introduction sent to the sisters by a former suitor of the other sister, and who was also a patron of Café Anglais and knew Babette; he asks that the sisters give Babette refuge.
Cailles en Sarcophage, translated: birds in coffins. In the revolution Babette has lost her husband and son. Many were killed were buried in mass graves. Later they were reburied in cemeteries, but Babette may not have known that. This is the main course and a symbol of Babette burying her loved ones.
Food researchers have found no reference to Blinis Demidorff, yet recipes for the dish are given, based on what can be seen in the movie. I believe that Karen Blixen named Blinis Demidorff after Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a Russian emigrant who founded the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded.
Some women organized a feminist movement, following on from earlier attempts in 1789 and 1848. Thus, Nathalie Lemel, a socialist bookbinder, and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian exile and member of the Russian section of the First International (IWA), created the “Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded” on April 11, 1871. The feminist writer André Léo, a friend of Paule Minck, was also active in the Women’s Union. Believing that their struggle against patriarchy could only be pursued through a global struggle against capitalism, the association demanded gender equality, wages equality, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education, and professional education for girls. They also demanded suppression of the distinction between married women and concubines, and between legitimate and illegitimate children.
Have you created something, or witnessed something being created, or been the recipient of something that was transformative, something that resulted in inspiration, healing, or breath-taking beauty? That is what Babette’s Feast is about.
There could be two obstacles to seeing this movie. First, the movie is in subtitles. There are movies I could listen to and enjoy without watching the picture. Babette’s Feast is the opposite. I enjoy listening to the original, but once you know the story, you could watch this movie with the sound off.
The other obstacle people might find with this movie is its length. It is long. I love that it is as long as it is. Plan an intermission, or bathroom break, or popcorn refill, if you prefer. I will suggest two places where you might plan these breaks: First, either right after the sisters agree to let Babette make the dinner or just as the provisions begin arriving. Second, either when we see the General in his aunt’s house dressing for the dinner, or right after that when both he and his aunt alight the carriage that will take them to the sisters’ cottage. Then you will see the whole dinner and the end of the movie in one piece. Better to be prepared for the intermissions so that these two segments are not interrupted.
I recently watched a downloadable version of Babette’s Feast. This 102 minute version is NOT THE ORIGINAL THEATRICAL RELEASE. The original version was more than 2.5 hours in length, possibly 163 minutes. Even the old VHS versions were the full length edition of the movie, and DVD editions had options for English and Spanish audio. In the download version there are no audio options and no closed-caption options and there are small changes to the translation as well. The scene I describe as being "the light of the winter solstice on planet earth is unmistakeable", the scene watching the dinner guests after the dinner walking down a path and snow starting to fall at the end of the film, is cut from the download version. Instead the sisters see the guests outside and say, "maybe it won’t snow" then go inside the house and there is snow in the window behind them. Try to find the original edition if you can. I know some art house movie theaters still show it from time to time.