For longer than the decade we’ve been officially married, my wife and I have shared a handful of filmic traditions around New Year’s. Some of those traditions—like watching the 1997 comedy Spice World that centers on the smash nineties’ pop girl-group sensation the Spice Girls—will forever remain acquired tastes. I wouldn’t recommend them to just anyone. Other movie traditions of ours, however, are so delightful and naturally suited to this time of year that they pass like the proverbial spoonful of sugar down even the most discerning and finicky of gorges. One of these latter traditions is our annual screening of the charming and deceptively simple 1987 Danish film adaptation of Isak Denisen’s story Babette’s Feast. If you’ve never heard of the movie, nor had occasion to watch it, I heartily recommend it to you, especially if, like me, you harbor an interest in things Satanic.
For those familiar with the movie, my claim that Babette’s Feast might have something to do with Satanism may at first seem somewhat strange for several reasons. First of all, the film proved a rousing critical success. It was the first Danish film to win an American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In Denmark, it won the Danish equivalent of an Oscar, the Robert award, in addition to yet another prestigious native film prize: the Bodil award, named, in part, for the actress Bodil Kjer who has a starring role in the movie. The movie also garnered prizes from the Belgian Film Critics Association, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered. At the popular level, Babette’s Feast has proven no less successful, spawning numerous recreations of the menu served at the titular meal in restaurants across the country and still inspiring journalists to recreate the feast’s pièce de résistance, a quail dish with the ominous moniker cailles en sarcophage (“quails in sarcophagus”), as recently as 2013. Even more strangely for an allegedly (by me, at any rate) Satanic film, Babette’s Feast has enjoyed the repeated endorsement and recommendation of none other than Pope Francis, who not only mentioned the movie, but also quoted from it, in a post-synodal apostolic exhortation released on April 6, 2016, entitled Amoris Laetitia or “The Joy of Love.” That makes Babette’s Feast the first and only film ever referenced in an official papal dispatch. The reason for this peculiar distinction lies in the film’s alleged spiritual and religious aspects, which have received treatment in blog posts and articles everywhere from the webpages of a group devoted to Jungian psychology to the peer reviewed Journal of Religion & Film.
A key part of all the religious interest in the movie stems from the common interpretation of the title character of Babette as a kind of Christ figure. And while this interpretation may have some validity on a certain level (all great pieces of art can be appreciated on multiple levels, and this one is no exception!), I think it misses the essentially Satanic core to the story’s philosophy. It is that core philosophy that makes the movie de rigeur viewing in our household around New Year’s every year.
So how does this thing work, a movie whose main character seems to most like a type of Christ but which I allege is really better read as exemplifying Satanic values? Well first, let’s take a look at the Babette-as-Christ line of reasoning, presenting its major aspects as though evidence at a trial: in five exhibits. This procedure will serve to flesh out the major plot line of the film, as well as to give an idea of the kind of entrenched interpretation my own Satanic view, like any good adversary, is up against. Of course it should go without saying, but just in case you need the warning: SPOILER ALERT!
Exhibit One: When we first meet the title character in the film, she is working as a simple domestic for a pair of sisters whose deceased father had gathered around himself in the tiny village on the rugged coast of Jutland where they all live a motley group of dour Pietist Protestant ascetics whom Babette serves during their regular meetings in the reverend’s home. Babette also aids the sisters in continuing their father’s ministry in the small village community beyond the faithful inner circle, preparing and serving meager meals of boiled fish and øllebrød or ale-and-bread soup to the elderly and infirm of the town.
Exhibit Two: Babette endured intense trials and suffering on her road to take up her role in this pious ministry. When she first turns up one stormy night on the sisters’ doorstep and begs permission to enter their service, Babette pleads that she had to flee the bloodshed of the radical 1871 Paris Commune in her native France, where she lost all she had, including both her husband and her son. The only token she still possessed of her former life was a worn lottery ticket that’s apparently still in play.
Exhibit Three: Though reluctant at first, the sisters take Babette in, allowing her to run their modest household and assist in ministering to the townspeople, where she proves herself a miracle of thrift and industry, somehow managing to enlarge the sisters’ meager coffers while, at the same time, improving upon the quality of the fare and service offered to their flock. Never ending baskets of fishes and loaves, anyone?
Exhibit Four: There is even a scene, early on, when the disciples of the inner brotherhood have begun bickering amongst themselves about past grievances with one another to such an extent that their quarrels interrupt the hymn the sisters are attempting in vain to lead in the parlor of their modest home. Babette enters the room bearing a tray of tea and snacks and calls for peace and quiet in an irascible, scolding tone of voice, thereby immediately quelling their arguments before proceeding with her silent, mindful service of the refreshment. The scene seems to present something of a mash-up of Christ quelling the storm, Christ intervening in his disciples’ dispute over who’s the greatest, and Christ washing the feet of his disciples despite, and over, their protestations.
Exhibit Five: Later, when Babette receives unexpected word from her home country some fourteen years into her engagement with the sisters that she has in fact won the lottery whose ticket she has held onto for all the intervening years since her departure, she begs the sisters to permit her to perform one further act of service. She requests that they allow her to use her newly won fortunes to mount un vrai dîner Français, “a real French dinner,” for the pair and their Pietist circle. Again reluctant at first, the two sisters nonetheless relent and grant Babette’s wish. Only at the conclusion of a lavish, multi-course meal filled to the brim with exotic French specialties and fine wines the likes of which rival the best restaurant in all of Paris do the sisters learn that, in her former life, Babette had worked as the head chef of that very premier Parisian eatery and that, in preparing and serving the meal to the inner circle and guests, the chef-turned-servant has completely bankrupted herself, spending all 10,000 francs she won from the lottery. “Dinner for twelve at the Café Anglais costs 10,000 francs,” Babette says matter-of-factly when pressed by the sisters as to why she will not be returning to France. It was this recreated “Last Supper” and the joy and reconciliation among the members of the Pietist sect to which it directly led that inspired Pope Francis to mention the movie in Amoris Laetitia, writing:
“The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’ It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centred, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit (¶ 129).”
So there you have a quick run-down of some of the customary arguments in the case for seeing in Babette a type of Jesus Christ. Even when commenters on the film aren’t marveling over the overt sacrificial aspect of Babette’s activity, mirrored iconically in her skillful butchery and manufacture of the elaborate cuisine itself, they’re nonetheless focused on her extravagant servitude on a New Testament model, like the nameless woman in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, then dries them with her hair, and then lavishes them with precious scented oil, or else the similar actions undertaken by Mary in John 12. I, however, think this common line of interpretation almost entirely misses the true—and inherently, if accidentally, Satanic—point of the film.
Apart from the food-and-wine-porn bon-vivantery that also makes the 2006 Ridley Scott movie A Good Year a staple of our annual New Year’s watching, another theme running through Babette’s Feast and rendering it fit for Satanic viewing at a time of hopeful resolutions is that of choice, self-mastery, and regret for the road not taken. This theme first shows up in the back-stories of two pairs of prominent characters—would-be couples, really: the Pietist pastor’s two daughters, Martine and Philippa, and two intriguing strangers to the village who happen to find their convoluted ways there and fall immediately under the sway of the innocent young sisters’ uncomplicated charms.
The first of these visiting outsiders is a dissolute young Swedish cavalry officer burdened by crushing gambling debts and sent by his father as a form of punishment to stay in Jutland with his wealthy aunt, who is also a sometime VIP member of the quiet village shepherd’s motley flock. Lorens Löwenhielm, as the young officer is called, happens upon the pastor’s lovely daughter Martine while out riding one day and immediately falls for her, fantasizing a higher life for himself in her company, wherein he becomes the dashing and successful career cavalryman and Martine takes her place at his side as his dutiful, angelic wife. The besotted young Löwenhielm immediately begins calling on pastor and family at their modest home, where he participates in the prayer meetings with the pious inner circle. However, the earnest Löwenhielm quickly becomes disillusioned, unable to ignore to the lack of fit between his own thought-world and ambition and the staid, Pietistic existence of the villagers, one which Martine will clearly never be able to forsake. So he turns his back on the blossoming love he feels for the maid and plunges headfirst into a career that will eventually take him as far as the royal court of Sweden, where his remembered bits of the pastor’s pious platitudes serve him well in ingratiating himself to the royal family, especially the devout queen.
The second of these strangers is a celebrated French opera singer named Achille Papin, who, on the suggestion of a female friend following a concert in Stockholm, goes on holiday to the Jutland coast and there one day catches the singing of young Philippa wafting on the sea air from her father’s small church were Sunday services are in progress. After making his way into the church and witnessing the comely form of the vessel from which the angelic voice takes flight, Papin immediately concludes “she is a diva” and resolves that—with his help and steady guidance, of course—“she will soon have all of Paris at her feet.” Papin shows up at the pastor’s home shortly thereafter and wins permission to give voice lessons to the would-be chanteuse, though his literally “hands-on” and “touchy-feely” tutoring style, combined with the overtly romantic nature of the lyrics he presses on his protégée and his incessant showering of pledges and promises of the wide acclaim that awaits her à Paris, make Philippa decidedly uncomfortable. So much so, in fact, that she ultimately decides to call off her lessons and leave Papin’s tutelage—as well as her imagined future singing career—forever.
At various points after the flash-backs that introduce these stories and their theme, the fateful decisions the characters make are clearly depicted as weighing heavily on them all. We see the two sisters looking wistful in quiet moments where they’re reminded of the paths out of the village that they didn’t take, clearly besotted with the charming Pied Pipers who would have gladly led them anywhere they wished to go, playing mad tunes of joy and frivolity all the while. Meanwhile, now much older versions of Löwenhielm and Papin have occasion to look back on the thirty-some-odd years of their careers, noting with more than a little bitterness their own loveless, though outwardly successful, existences. Indeed, at a key moment in the movie just before the eponymous feast, the distinguished-old-General version of Löwenhielm conjures from memory and imagination an image of his younger, dissolute self and then challenges the ambitious shade to prove to the older man that the choice his younger self made to forsake true love and follow a lonelier path to fame and fortune was the right one to make. As has been noted by other commentators, the nostalgia and longing playing out in these key characters’ lives receives significant underscoring in the film from the hymn “Jerusalem, my heart’s true home” that features throughout the movie on the lips of the pastor’s inner circle of querulous faithful: everyone seems to feel an acute lack in their lives and longing for an imagined place they want to reach but seemingly cannot through any effort or choosing of their own.
The whole of this theme comes to a head at Babette’s lavish feast—whence the film’s title—when the worldly General Löwenhielm accompanies his aged aunt to the two sisters’ home on the occasion of the celebration of what would have been their father the pastor’s centenary. There he finds himself seated once again at the table around which he had once gathered in the company of the inner circle for prayer and simple hymns. Only this time, that table bears a white linen tablecloth, delicate china stacked several plates high, three glasses of different sizes and shapes for each guest to enjoy different wines and spirits with each intricate course, and, finally, sumptuous gastronomic fare that rivals even the premier Parisian restaurant, the Café Anglais, which the savvy general recounts to the assembled guests he once had occasion to visit in the company of the French General Gaston Alexandre Auguste, Marquis de Galliffet, famous to history primarily for his role in putting down the violent 1871 Paris uprising which impelled Babette’s flight from her homeland to begin with. Löwenhielm describes the unusual fact of the restaurant’s having had a female head chef, famous for the very same dishes—and presumably vintages—now being served in the austere pastor’s home in Western coastal Jutland. Löwenhielm’s commentary punctuates the entirety of the meal—This is the best Amontillado I have ever tasted! This is quite definitely real turtle soup. And what a turtle soup it is! This most certainly is Veuve Clicquot 1860! Blinis Demidoff! Cailles en sarcophage! The general’s running observations on the food and wine, though clearly falling on deaf ears among his fellow diners from the old pastor’s inner circle, have the effect of heightening and enhancing the viewing audience’s wonder and amazement at the surprising meal being offered in so remote and unlikely a spot.
After the final fruit course has been presented and Löwenhielm plucks a ripe bunch of green grapes still glistening with the water they were washed in off the circulating platter, he rises to offer a brief disquisition on the subject of choices, our moral anguish in having to make them, and the ultimate extent to which they don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Löwenhielm says:
“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”
Now, while some commentators on the movie have concluded that it is the “light of divine love and grace” shown through Babette’s skillful cooking and sacrificial feasting that renders human choice and wrangling over things chosen and things rejected a moot point, the character of Babette herself and the lessons we can draw from her behavior in the film belie this interpretation utterly.
Unlike Martine and Philippa, Papin and Löwenhielm, Babette has had no fateful choices to make, at least none that presented themselves to her as anguished moral choices she had the freedom and leisure to trouble herself over. Circumstances beyond her control took her husband and son from her, forced her to flee for her life from her native France, brought her via the chance employment of her nephew on a ship bound for Sweden and her friend Achille Papin’s fond memory of a maiden in Jutland to that same savage peninsular coast, and got her tattered old lottery ticket’s number called up in preference to the doubtless thousands of others sold. And while we see Babette at times in the film similarly dewy eyed with remembrance of a painful past, hers is the pain of loss to time and tide through outright theft, not to choices made and later regretted.
Indeed, we see Babette surviving and making her way in her austere new life in Denmark with the same cunning, skill, and gusto with which she prepares her final feast. Twice the movie explains precisely why it is that Babette’s presence in the elderly sisters’ life has managed to actually increase their financial holdings. That’s because she cheats the fish monger, whom she haggles down to a low-ball price on the trumped-up charge of his fish, though just plucked from the sea, not being fresh and then conveniently “forgets” to pay. So also the local grocer, who provides Babette with a fresh new slice of bacon even as she complains, much to his bewilderment, that the last was rancid. Then, distracted by conversation with Babette about the allegedly substandard bacon, as well as her home country and its ways, the poor sod completely overlooks that he hasn’t received payment for his goods until it is too late and the chicken has already flown the coup of his shop. In these encounters, Babette behaves in a manner that makes perfect sense later in the film in light of the revelation regarding her former career as professional chef. She is the consummate kitchen manager, strong-arming her purveyors in order to guarantee the best product at the lowest price: more wily Odysseus Polytropos than innocent Lamb of God. In both cases, too, the victims of her swindles seem positively bemused by Babette’s charming ways, rather than indignant at their loss. An onlooker on the scene at the grocer’s even remarks on Babette’s wiles with obvious respect, saying: “She’s a clever one.”
The seemingly magical, occult powers Babette deploys in pursuit of her will receive highlighting once again when she departs for a week to visit with her sea-faring nephew and arrange for him to procure and bring along the long list of ingredients and products from France that she will need for her French dinner. As Martine and Philippa again struggle on their own to see to their flock’s needs, we witness scenes of elderly shut-ins showing obvious disappointment and frustration at the unhappy return of the old øllebrød gruel in their daily meal deliveries. In another scene, the sisters look with clear apprehension on the diminutive stove Babette usually presides over which they must now, after a fourteen-year hiatus, once again wrestle to light and cook on. In Babette’s week-long dereliction of her duty, a certain magic has gone out.
Then, when Babette returns and the products for her dinner begin arriving from the shore—a large live turtle with ominous labored breathing, delicate cratefuls of fine wines, a small cage of softly cooing quails, a cow’s head that serves I know not what purpose in the final meal, a large rectangular block of ice wrapped in paper—the dark mystery of Babette’s ways looms larger still. Martine even suffers a vivid nightmare featuring that same turtle, with its eery, jerking movements, and cow’s head that now takes on the aspect of a Baphomet or Sabbatic Goat. On waking distraught, Martine takes it upon herself to warn the old pastor’s aged congregation of what she fears is a “witches’ sabbath” in the offing in Babette’s nefarious dinner plans.
In the Karen Blixen story from which movie is drawn, this occult aspect to Babette and her activity receives still further underscoring, as she and her kitchen help are described as “the dark woman and the red-haired boy, like some witch with her familiar spirit.” Of Babette’s role in the lives of the sisters and their father’s inner circle, Dinesen writes:
“In the course of time not a few of the brotherhood included Babette’s name in their prayers, and thanked God for the speechless stranger, the dark Martha in the house of their two fair Marys. The stone which the builders had almost refused had become the headstone of the corner.
The ladies of the yellow house were the only ones to know that their cornerstone had a mysterious and alarming feature to it, as if it was somehow related to the Black Stone of Mecca, the Kaaba itself.”
This comparison of Babette with “the dark Martha in the house of…two fair Marys” recalls the incident in Luke, chapter 10, when Jesus visits in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The latter woman busies herself with all the preparations necessary for seeing to the needs of the exalted guest, while Mary just sits quietly at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word. When Martha complains that Mary is doing nothing to help, Jesus praises the quiet piety of Mary and, by implication, scorns the workings of Martha. Industrious household manager Babette is too busy plying her trade with professional skill and dark, pagan ways that smack of the infidel to bother with sitting at the feet of spiritual guides peddling a gospel of delayed gratification and the vague hope of future rewards. But unlike the Martha of the Gospels, Babette is, in fact, the only character in the story that bears her name who is not, in Jesus’ words, “worried and distracted by many things.” And it is here, as they say, where the entire rub of the movie lies, in my humble opinion.
The feast Babette prepares for her guests does not provide any foretaste of a longed-for heaven. Rather it represents the consummation of a life spent in the here and now in skillful procurement and abundant provision. Babette, her manner of life, and the ultimate reification of that lifeway in the sumptuous banquet that gives the film its name represent the antithesis of the faith of the ascetic community she serves. Theirs is a delayed-return way of life that sees in the world nothing but a source of scarcity, where one’s purity of intention and faith must be jealously guarded against the promise of a future consummation in the heaven of their hymns and fevered prayer. In the words of young Löwenhielm, their view of life emphasizes how cruel and hard the world is, some things being simply not possible for mortals to attain or achieve, such as happiness it would seem. When Martine awoke from her witchy nightmare and went before her father’s inner circle to warn them of her suspicions, she swore the lot to the strictest possible observation of self-abnegation and asceticism. They would attend the feast, of course, and eat the food provided, but not one of them would betray their spiritual principles by commenting on the fare, nor would they permit themselves even a fleeting moment of enjoyment. They would instead talk only of their dearly departed guru and his promise of a hoped-for heaven, all the while letting the exotic provender on the table before them go unnoticed and unremarked. At least that was the theory, anyway. In actual fact, Babette’s skill has wrought a banquet so sumptuous and perfect that not even these arch Puritans manage to make it all the way through without succumbing to sheer sensual bliss. In one of my wife’s favorite scenes, a particularly childlike elderly sister reaches for her glass of the most recently poured libation only to taste and discover that it’s merely water. A look of betrayal and obvious displeasure strikes ponderous clouds into in her innocent face, as the woman replaces the offending cup on the table and then reaches with unabashed delight for the goblet beside it, where a quarter-portion of the cherry-red Clos Vougeot burgundy leftover from the main course awaits. Her long sip is followed immediately by the tip of her tongue emerging between flushed cherub cheeks to scour already smacking lips. Pure satisfaction.
Babette’s is an immediate-return outlook and way of life. Her world is one of sheer abundance, needing only the skill and care of a confident provider to find, seize, and enjoy. Under the magical sway of a miraculous glimpse of that way of living in the form of Babette’s feast, Löwenhielm revises his youthful gloomy remarks from earlier in the film and concludes instead: “All things are possible in this beautiful world of ours.” His updated conclusion never ceases to remind me of the moment in the 1989 sixteenth episode in season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation when the enigmatic and godlike character Q remarks of the universe:
“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.”
Babette is anything but timid in her pursuit of life’s finer pleasures. When the sisters approach her in the afterglow of the meal—once all the guests have departed for the night—and, upon discovering that their domestic has bankrupted herself, reproach her for it, saying, “You should not have given all you owned for us,” Babette assures them: “It was not just for you.” The sisters object, saying: “Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life,” to which Babette responds: “An artist is never poor.” Philippa rises from her seat and comes to face Babette directly, looking shocked at this revelation, before asking: “Did you prepare that sort of dinner at the Café Anglais?” Babette assents with a nod, adding: “I was able to make them happy. When I gave of my very best. Papin knew that.” Philippa gets misty-eyed at mention of the opera singer’s name, asking: “Achille Papin?” Babette answers: “Yes. He said: ‘Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.’” At that point, Philippa retreats back into religious platitudes, taking it on herself to attempt to console Babette by telling the French woman that she is certain this is not the end, that in Paradise Babette will be the great artist God meant for her to be, that she will surely delight the angels. But as Babette receives the older woman in her arms and pats her on the back like a mother comforting a scared child, the viewing audience can see that Philippa’s words were really more an attempt at self-consolation when reminded of the love once offered that she didn’t take. In Babette’s closed-eyed calm as she embraces the aged sister, we glimpse the quiet certainty that the mysterious French woman has already been—and still is—the consummate artist she meant herself to be. She need not await some putative paradise to find or share the worldly delight she carries within her. Babette has already brought that light, that inspiration, on the earth we all inhabit. The final scene of the film closes in a close-up on one of the still burning candles gracing the feasting table. We see the flame Babette lit extinguished by an unseen puff of breath—most likely her own—to the accompaniment of a single struck-note somewhere high up on an invisible piano. It is done.
Babette’s Feast is a staple of my wife and my New Year’s viewing because it provides a sensual vision of life where the only thing promising escape from “lives of quiet desperation” comprised of endless worry over choices and roads not taken is the act of raising one’s life through skill and mastery to the level of pure artistry, where the inherent abundance of the world and of worldly experience can be shaped and molded into something both worthy of celebration in the here and now and capable of true inspiration to others. And this kind of art is not merely of the fortune-seeking type, the kind that rises and falls solely on others’ critical appraisals. Rather it is the kind that enriches every moment of the artisan’s daily existence, ensuring that the artist herself is never truly impoverished, irrespective of the circumstances that may befall her. It reminds me of the line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that I memorized as a youth:
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
Be like Babette. Be your own creator. Practice life as art in the atelier of the real world, where the individual artisan, emptied of pious delusions and resolved to seize and share her portion of the abundance all around, creates the highest and most potent form of magic any of us will ever know: the Satanic self we acknowledge every time we raise the cornu to proclaim, Hail Satan! Hail Thyself! Hail Babette and her gorgeous, sensuous feast as well! May your new year prove just as rich, just as abundant and fulfilling as that, and more. So be it.