“Babette’s Feast” – Become an Artist of Your Own Destiny [Analysis]

Babette's Feast


Title: “Babette’s Feast” (“Babettes gaestebud”)

Release Date: 1987

Director: Gabriel Axel

Cast: Stephane Audran, Brigitte Federspiel, Ghita Norby, Bodil Kjer, Jarl Kulle, Jean Philippe Lafont


Gabriel Axel’s masterpiece “Babette’s Feast” is the first Danish movie to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Work. The picture is based on the prose of the famous Scandinavian writer Karen Blixen. The beautiful story of the French cook has multifaceted senses that refer to biblical meanings, reflections on destiny, confrontation of different lifestyles and the role of art. Above all, however, it is a story about the fact that there is an inner genius in every human being, which, if only heard, will transform human destiny into a work of art, no matter how difficult the circumstances it faces.

“Babette’s Feast” – the story of a certain cook

“Babette’s Feast” was realized in a narrative convention, referring to the tradition of Scandinavian folk tales and legends. From the beginning of the film we hear the voice of the “storyteller”, who, from behind the screen, introduces us to the circumstances of the plot and characterizes the characters. He also repeatedly uses flashbacks, so that we can get acquainted with the story, which takes place over several decades. Therefore, we meet the two beautiful, pious daughters of a strict pastor who live with him in a tiny Danish village. Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martina (Brigitte Federspiel) sacrifice their personal happiness under the pressure of their father’s ascetic attitude. Each of them gives up on love, even though interesting candidates for their hand appear. One is adored by a handsome soldier (Jarl Kulle), the other by a world-famous French singer (Jean Phillippe Lafont).

Even after their father’s death, the sisters live up to the teachings he preached, cultivating his memory. As their youth passes away, a French refugee unexpectedly shows up at Filippa and Martina’s house. From a letter from Martina’s former love, which the woman carries with her, they learn that she is a certain Babette (played by Stephane Audran), who lost her husband and child during the Paris Commune and is now in need of shelter. The information also reveals that Babette can cook well, so the sisters decide to hire her as a cook. At first the woman can’t cook simple Danish dishes, but over time she becomes proficient, and with her savings the sisters are able to put away a considerable sum.

Babette's movie review

One day Babette wins a dizzying amount of money in the lottery. Nevertheless, she doesn’t want to leave right away, and asks her employers so that she can prepare a festive dinner for everyone on the anniversary of their father’s birthday. Also showing up at the feast is Filippa’s former love, General Lorens Lowenhielm, who, thanks to his world travels, recognizes in the exquisite food the hand of the master of French cuisine. It turns out that Babette once ran the best restaurant in Paris, and even crowned heads delighted in her dishes. When the sisters thank their maid for such a magnificent gesture, the maid confesses that she won’t leave them because she spent all her winnings on the feast.

“Babette’s Feast” – Scandinavian asceticism versus the French art of living

“Babette’s Feast” is a multidimensional work that can be read on various levels. It certainly represents a confrontation of two different cultures and lifestyles. For on the one hand we have Scandinavian asceticism, represented by the pastor’s daughters, and on the other a French love of the pleasures of life. Both attitudes have their advantages. The sisters live away from worldly temptations, being content with what they have. What’s more, in the name of the principle of biblical mercy, they help the poor of their parish, and support them spiritually by holding weekly meetings to meditate on God’s word. At the same time, however, their humble lives seem devoid of color and flavor, just like the dishes they teach Babette to prepare.

When a maid offers to cook a dinner consisting of her national dishes, the sisters are horrified and even suspect the cook of devilish tricks. This is because the fear is aroused in them by the otherness of the Mediterranean culture represented by Babette. The Frenchwoman, on the other hand, does not shy away from the pleasures of the palate. Her life attitude is to enjoy life with all her senses, just as her cuisine is full of flavors and aromas. What’s more, Babette exhibits incredible nonchalance, spending all her winnings on preparing a feast. Modesty and a focus on the small are thus contrasted here with a carefree approach to money.

Babette's Feast film analysis

“Babette’s Feast” – a biblical supper

However, one may ask with perversity, which of the attitudes presented in “Babette’s Feast” is closer to the biblical spirit? At first glance, it seems that the pastor’s daughters are the women who live according to Christian precepts. After all, aren’t asceticism and modesty among the set of most important biblical ideals? And yet the film perversely tilts the scales to Babette’s side. For it is she who ungrudgingly gives up everything she has for others. The dinner she prepares has an outstanding symbolic dimension. It recalls both the images present in the Old Testament psalms of a royal feast for the saved and Christ’s Last Supper. Following the example of Jesus, Babette shares everything she has, not only in a material sense. She uses her culinary skills to feed a small rural community exactly as the mighty of the world eat in Paris.

What’s more, this appreciation of the needs of the body turns out to be, as it were, the missing element in the sisters’ preaching. The long quarreling and bitter residents only truly forgive each other after a delicious dinner and a taste of fine wine. The feast soothes even the deepest wounds of the past. The general finally confesses his love to his beloved, and although both are aware that it is too late for them, they can find solace in the knowledge that they will carry each other in their hearts for the rest of their days.

“Babette’s Feast” – the mystery of destiny

“Babette’s Feast” certainly also forces one to reflect on destiny. Does a person choose his or her own fate, and if he or she chooses badly, must it end in misfortune? Philippa and Martina reject the chance for love, and hide their pain from the world, showing serene faces to others. One can read this theme as a story about lost dreams and the bitterness that is their fruit. However, one can also see the other bottom of their fate. After all, the pastor’s daughters are an invaluable support to the small community, taking care of the sick and the poor, as well as integrating the residents. So even a bad choice does not seem to derail a person’s chance for a good and worthwhile life.

Babette's Feast 1987

Perhaps the trauma of losing that which is closest to us is inevitably inscribed in human existence and cannot be avoided, even by making the most accurate choices. This is, after all, the case with Babette, who is in deep, silent mourning after the death of her husband and son. The woman has to face life in a foreign land in complete solitude. In this sense, the feast she has prepared is an act of heroic faith in the meaning of existence despite everything.

“Babette’s Feast”: “An artist is never poor”

“Babette’s Feast”, at the deepest level, is a story about art understood, nonetheless, very broadly. For it is not just about strictly artistic activity, but about understanding life as a true work of art. Babette is undoubtedly a great artist, as evidenced by the exquisite dinner she prepared. It is worth mentioning that party planning as a metaphor for the creative process appears, for example, in “The Hours”, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dolloway”. What sets Babette apart from the other characters in the film, however, is her artistic self-awareness. When the pastor’s daughters lament to Babette that she has spent all her money and will be poor again, she responds with astonishment: “after all, an artist is never poor.”

This sentence, uttered in the finale of the movie “Babette’s Feast”, provides a profound punchline. It is in it that the most important message of the work is concentrated: a person in all circumstances has innumerable riches, because deep down he is a genius, and his unique fate is a unique manifestation of creation. The word genius itself is derived from Latin and means “soul,” something that is an attribute of every human individual. Celebrating ordinary life as a creative act allows us to live it with dignity and hope, no matter how difficult experiences we come to endure. It is up to us, therefore, to choose whether to take on the role of a craftsman reproducing established and ready-made patterns or become an artist of our own destiny.


“Kino końca wieku”, pod red. T. Lubelskiego, I. Sowińskiej, R. Syski, Kraków 2019.