If you were stranded on a desert island with only five movies, what would they be? I love that type of question not because it’s original, but because the answer always is: it helps us see who we are by revealing what films have left the greatest impression on us, not at the box-office, but on our souls.
Babette’s Feast has been on my list since 1987, and today I’m holding tightly to the lessons it teaches about dignity and acceptance. A quick synopsis.
It is a dark and stormy night in 1871 on the Jutland coast of Denmark. Babette (Stéphane Audran) appears at the spare home of two elderly, Puritan sisters as if blown there by the wind. She has barely survived revolution in France and carries a letter from Achille Papin, a world-renowned opera singer and one-time suitor of the sister Filippa. It is an appeal for Babette – who herself has been the head chef at the celebrated Parisian restaurant, Le Café Anglais – to work as a cook and housemaid for this elderly pair. Babette has lost nearly everything: her husband and sons; her life of prestige and glamor; everything but an impeccable set of clothes, her dignity and her immense talent as a culinary artist. Fourteen years later, she prepares a feast to honor the sisters’ long-deceased minister/father – a feast that rekindles the dormant spirit of love and gratitude among the brittle Puritan sect the father created and the sisters have served for decades.
There’s a scene when Babette sits alone to a dinner of Danish mush in a room the size of a closet. The sun is setting. She watches. Gold light fills the space and illuminates a single tear that forms and falls from the bed of her eyelid. It is the only sign of sorrow and loss Babette shows us in the course of the movie.
I am no Babette. My daughter is thriving. My closet is filled with clothing I should probably not have bought. And the only revolution I’ve encountered is called the Internet. But I have lost my career, my house, my savings and a little bit of my sanity this year. Thankfully, I live now in a guest room with my mother … and my cat … and the soothing, hopeful impression of my courageous, enduring Babette. Like the Great Teachers, her impression rests on my soul.
Tomorrow: The Wizard of Oz.