Year Released: 1987
Directed by: Gabriel Axel
Starring: Stephane Audran, Vibeke Hastrup, Hanne Stensgaard
(Not Rated, 103 min.)
"After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations." Oscar Wilde
Like Babette’s actual epicurean dinner, the film about it is prepared with a deft hand. It is as subtle as the French caviar, as rich as the turtle soup, and as ephemeral as the bubbles in the exquisite Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
The setting is the Danish coast of the late 19th century, home to a particularly dour band of melancholy Danes. The vicar of an austere religious sect that has renounced all earthy pleasures (Pouel Kern) has two lovely daughters, Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stensgaard), who are devoted to him and his religious calling.
Each has a chance at love and fame in the world away from their gray and soggy shores, but they each reject it. Young Martina’s ethereal beauty catches the eye of a dashing visiting soldier (Gudmar Wivesson), but without a word from her, he senses she could never leave the ties to her bleak but pure life.
Philippa has the voice of an angel, which enraptures Paris opera star Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont). Of course, he is not immune to her other charms, either, as is aptly demonstrated in one poignant voice lesson as the words from a duet from Don Giovanni assume special meaning. Papin as Don Giovanni urges her to “Come, then, with me, my beauty…I’ll make you a great lady.”
Philippa’s reply captures her mood exactly – the thrill of the enticement and her fear of embracing bliss or the enraptured Papin, for that matter. “I tremble, yet I listen. I’m fearful of my joy.”
As soon as that session ends, she tells her father to discontinue the voice lessons, and Papin goes to Paris, alone and heartbroken.
No, it is not her father per se who stands between them. Both his daughters have so absorbed his severe teachings that his disapproval is not needed. They cut off the worldly life and the promise of love themselves.
Papin is not heard again until some 35 years later, when he sends a friend to take refuge with the kind sisters, now elderly spinsters carrying on the work of their father, who has since died. The friend is a French woman named Babette (Stephane Audran), a victim of the 1871 Paris revolution who has seen both her husband and son slaughtered. While Martina and Philippa do not have the funds to pay her, Babette is content to act as their cook and housekeeper for her mere room and board.
They teach her how to prepare their daily fare, the ale bread soup, a sticky goo at best, and the salted cod, which like every thing else there is soaked, or let us say drowned, in water before it is cooked.
Babette alternately deals with the cunning fish mongers and bleak winds, even coaxing a bit of flavor into the bland gruel, as indicated by the toothless grin an old man now flashes as Martina feeds him.
But then she comes into a bit of luck, as asks the sisters if she can cook a French dinner for them and their small congregation as they honor the 100 year anniversary of the vicar’s birth. The sisters, of course, are concerned, but cannot bear to turn down her request. But the congregants are really fearful. After all, Babette is French, a catholic, or “papist” as they would have it. They are worried they might catch her decadence like some rumored French plague.
The only solution for this grim crowd, now a frosty bunch whose righteousness has withered to numbness and self-pity, is a pact wherein they each vow to say nothing in acknowledgment of the delicacies Babette will prepare for them.
And the delicacies began to arrive from across the sea, like some marauding army coming ashore. They are assailed by all matter of animals, almost like a malevolent ark washing onto their banks – crated live quail, a huge sea turtle flapping its fins as if to fly away, and a moaning ox.
Soon all these emissaries, like sacrificial lambs, find their way to the growing heap outside the village, a bloody brigade of bones and hide that are now the essence of soup stock.
In addition to the beasts, we have another guest at this affair in the person of Martina’s old suitor, the young soldier now a worldly general who comes back to the coast questioning his earlier choice to leave as a hollow one. Since he is the only diner not sworn to silence, we have his eloquence as he describes and savors each dish.
One of particular interest is the Caille en Sarcophage, Quail in Puff Pastry Shells with Fois Gras and Truffle Sauce. The general remembers this as the signature dish of the famed Café Anglais of Paris. The renowned chef, he remembers, was a woman.
So the delightful dinner proceeds, and even though its diners, save one, say nothing, their attitudes undergo a slow transformation. The bitterness wanes and old grievances are forgotten, for a time, at least. And the meal becomes almost a communion, where the “needs of the flesh and needs of the spirit” merge, where bliss and righteousness become one.
No, you are not going to have to grab one of those sad-eyed oil slicked sea turtles for our soup. Let’s face it. Babette lived on the Danish coast at the end of the 19th century. She didn’t have to contend with Peta looking over her shoulder or have to survive a Save the Sea Turtle campaign, so she was very comfortable bringing in the huge, very much alive creature to cut up for her soup.
You will have to settle for a smaller, less endangered variety for the tasty meat. Our recipe is from Different Drummer’s own Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook. It is even served with a shot of sherry on the side.
Iridescent Turtle Soup with Sherry on the Side
2 pounds turtle meat, cubed
3 bay leaves
2 sticks butter, unsalted
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 cup celery, diced
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
2 cups green onions, diced
1 1/2 cups tomato puree
1 quart chicken broth
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
6 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
3 tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1 shot dry sherry per serving (optional)
In heavy saucepan melt butter. When melted add flour and cook until the flour turns the color of a penny. This roux must be stirred at all times so it will not burn. When roux reaches the desired color, add vegetables and turtle meat and cook until turtle is brown and vegetables are clear. Add the tomato puree and cook for about 15 minutes on low fire. In stockpot simmer beef stock. While boiling, add the mixture from saucepan and stir until soup is mixed and roux is dissolved. Stock should be smooth and have body. Simmer soup until turtle becomes tender, at which time you may add the lemon, diced eggs, and parsley. Each plate should be served with a shot of sherry on the side.
Recipe Source: Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook