There has been a surge of interest in food and food culture in the past decade, a phenomenon that has earned the moniker “the foodie revolution”.
There is a seeming omnipresence of food-themed reality TV shows and a plethora of food related literature that defy enumeration.
As global food cultures become more transnational, we start to understand and appreciate how food and culinary practices mirror and shape our identities, whether cultural, social or religious. We have become increasingly aware that culinary and gastronomic activities are not just about food, they have deep and real implications on the way we relate with the world and with our very selves. We explore how these films are a cinematic mirror of French food and culture.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
“What will they do, eat the leftovers?”
Films about food are almost always secretly about sensuality, art, or both. All of them are about what cooking expresses about the chef, and how the pleasure of superlative food opens people to powerful emotions. In Gabriel Axel’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Babette’s Feast, a single meal heals decades-old resentments, stands in for romance, and validates an artist whose life has been destroyed. Great food, the film suggests, has a transportive power that weaves its way past long-entrenched beliefs, and can transcend religion, love, and will.
Set in a remote 19th Danish century village, two sisters lead a regimental existence spent caring for their father. Years after the death of their father, they take in French refugee, Babette Hersant, as their servant. To repay the favour, a grateful Babette makes the sisters a decadent French meal.
Nourishing both the senses and the religious imagination with its profound representation of food and eating, this Oscar winner remains the gold standard for food films. In the film’s defining sequence, the unobtrusive camera lens lingers on a dinner table elegantly set for 12. Reflecting the characters’ puritan milieu and the cold winter season, the sparse and muted interiors of the dining room, as well as dull colour palette, provide a dramatic contrast to the luminous feast that awaits.
The tour-de-force, climactic dinner sequence reveals how the dinner guests helplessly fall under the spell of quail-and-truffle-stuffed pastries and Veuve Clicquot. As the lavish seven-course French dinner unfolds, a gentle wind of change starts to blow, and this table of human disappointment is transformed.
Between delectable servings of blinis Demidoff (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream), caille en sarcophage (“quail in a sarcophagus”), and other exquisite dishes, not to mention free-flowing Veuve Clicquot champagne and Amontillado sherry, a spirit of liberation, reconciliation and gratitude takes over. What begins as a table of disappointment gracefully transforms into a table of hopeful possibility.
Babette Hersant has spent all her lottery winnings for the ingredients and meticulous preparations necessary for this transformative feast. Undisclosed to the dinner guests until now, the servant Babette has become “the greatest culinary artist of the age.” She is an artistic figure of culinary France.
In this regard, “Babette’s Feast” is, par excellence, the cinematic mirror of the foodie revolution.
For the full article (and more films), check out our July-Sept issue of SALT magazine!