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A pair of never-married sisters attempt to keep true to the religious teachings of their father and maintain the health and spirit of remote Danish community he helped create, even at the cost of their own desires.


Medium: Film

Writer(s): Gabriel Axel

Director(s): Gabriel Axel

Production Co.(s): Panorama Film A/S, Det Danske Filminstitut, Nordisk Film, Rungstedlundfonden

Adapted from: Babette's Feast (Short story included in the compilation Anecdotes of Destiny) by Karen Blixen (© 1958)

In Babette's Feast, a pair of elderly never-married sisters, Filippa and Martine, attend to the physical and spiritual health of a remote 19th-century Danish coastal village established years before by their father—a Protestant minister who believed strongly in nurturing the spirit through self-denial. The villagers on whom they shower their good works are disciples of their father's teachings and knew him when he was alive. But with each passing year, they grow older, more feeble, more in need of care, and more distanced from his moderating influence, which kept in check the squabbles that might otherwise rise naturally between them.

In a significant backstory segment, we-the-audience learn that when the sisters were young, both were bright and beautiful, and each had more than one chance to step away from their father and his teachings and to live life on her own. Aside from their many suitors within the village itself, each of whom were rebuffed by the father (who took a dim view of marriage and wanted to keep his daughters as personal helpers), such chances took the form of two male interlopers. For Martine, the temptation and opportunity to live her own life arrived in the person of Lorens, an undisciplined soldier who had been ordered by his superiors to spend time with his aunt, a pious old woman who lived in a mansion near the village and was well-known to (an well-liked by) the villagers. For Filippa, it appeared in the form of Achille Papin, a French opera singer who had come to the village for his health and, upon hearing her sing in church, had lauded her voice and offered his services as a tutor.

Although Martine seemed to be smitten by Lorens, as he was with her, she made no attempt to stop him when he departed the region of his own accord to pursue a more disciplined life as a soldier and to try to attain military greatness. And as much as Filippa seemed to enjoy her singing lessons with Achille, the enjoyment itself unnerved her, and she had them stopped by her father.

It is these two decisions—to let Lorens leave without protest and to reject Achille and his lessons—that leave the sisters in their old age with only each other to keep alive their father's teachings and take care of the villagers.

Thirty-five years later, and long after their father has died, the sisters are visited on a stormy night by Babette, a refugee from a civil war taking place in Paris. She arrives bearing a letter of recommendation from Papin and asks to become their servant, requesting only food and shelter for her efforts. Out of pity and in the spirit of Christian charity, the sisters grant her request and welcome her into their home—a decision that proves beneficial to themselves and the village at large. Not only does the assistance of Babette free them to help the villagers in other ways, but Babette is a very good cook and runs a smart household, which saves them money.

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