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Film Club Discussion: Babette’s Feast

In the climax of Babette’s Feast, the title character prepares an extravagant meal, the like of which I have never seen. My general requirements for food are “healthy,” “easy,” and “quick.” But when friends talk about the Slow Food movement and signature moments where extraordinary food has been a catalyst, I recognize that lentils on rice is not the only way to go.

And come to think of it, I have some great food memories myself. I remember staring agog at a mountain of ice-cream with rivulets of chocolate descending the slopes, at a childhood birthday party at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor. You like apples? Here in Michigan we enjoy a variety of fall apples, but eating a Honey Crisp apple is something else. You savor the aroma as you peel, take small bites and chew slooowly, share a slice to make a forever friend, and linger long before the last bite. I love eating my wife’s or my mother-in-law’s empanadas, little pastries with egg/spinach mix or a dozen other savory or sweet fillings. We have them only once or twice a year because in the time it takes to make them you could cross the English channel with an oar and an inner tube. But maybe they’re worth it anyway—that’s what I think, especially, after watching this movie.

A character in Babette’s Feast, in reference to making a love affair of a meal, talks about a point where there is no distinction between bodily and spiritual appetite. Hmmm. Let’s roll this concept around. As a golfer, my spirit soars on those rare occasions when the iron strikes the ball perfectly and the sphere ascends majestically toward its target. Is that “spiritual”? I enjoyed a beautiful confluence of a bodily and spiritual high during a recent hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto with family. In a good marriage, sexual intimacy provides such an intersection; pornography, in contrast, divorces the spiritual from the bodily appetite.

There is a tendency among some of us to be distrustful of experiences that move us emotionally, as they can undermine our rational control. Plato is with us on this one. He tossed poets out of his Republic because, he explains, their work tends to feed and water the emotions and undermine the grave sense of duty he saw as preeminent.

However, God fashioned us as creative beings with bodily appetites and artistic propensities, and when we stifle those we are being less than fully human. So how do we address our full natures and have the spiritual, emotional, rational, artistic and creative in proper balance?

I am 100% certain that your depth in discussing this question will be enhanced by watching Babette’s Feast (based on a short story by Isak Dinesen). The film treats an isolated conservative religious community in 19th century Jutland. Their housing, food, and clothing, is the plainest imaginable. Their talk is boring, petty and purely local.

Into their midst come three visitors: a soldier and an opera singer make brief appearances; a French cook stays for a number of years. Through these visitors from the outside world, the villagers, and in particular the daughters of the local minister, have the opportunity to weigh the values of the outside world against those of their religious community. In this evaluation we have important lessons to learn.

For me, one intriguing angle is that even though the film gives me no desire to try fine wines or real turtle soup, much less cailles en sarcophagi, the idea of a meal that transforms the spirit and creates a bond of community moves me deeply. I see it. I believe it. And I ask myself what, by God’s grace, can I bring to the table to transform my community?


  1. What experiences in art, music, or other areas, represent for you a “divine” intersection of body (or material expression) and spirit?
  2. To what degree must we wait for heaven to experience this perfect harmony between body and spirit? The last line of the film, for instance, suggests that Philippa—who in the film finds disharmony between development of her singing talent and preservation of her spiritual purity—will delight the angels in heaven with her singing.
  3. I don’t understand the part of the general’s speech where he tells Martina (after the feast), that it doesn’t matter that they have been separated their whole lives, and that every night he will be with her in spirit. What is he thinking, or what am I missing?
  4. To what degree can appetite be positively indulged when not associated with spirituality? For instance, Tampopo is another very interesting film with a high culinary angle, but treated more from a comic and secular perspective, or maybe “secular spiritual” is a better term, as food is treated reverently, but with no sense that there is a god behind it all. The difference is striking.

Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University. He writes about Babette’s Feast and other movies in his book Screen Deep (Review and Herald, 2008).

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