Shouts of diversity and equality have shaken producers to read scripts with strong female leads. The bottom line holds to the status quo.
What if a ‘chic flick’ could change that exhausted paradigm? A flick with a female lead so strong she doesn’t need a character arc, she arcs everyone else’s character around her, and keeps raising the bottom line for eternity!
Look no further than the modern classic, and 1987 Academy Award winning Best Foreign Film from France, Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel, or as I like to call it, ‘The Art of the Meal’.
Babette’s Feast is the second story written by Danish writer Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen), adapted for film. The first is the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1985, Out of Africa, directed by Sydney Pollack (Best Director), starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Isak Dinesen has been criticized for ‘old fashioned’ storytelling. She defended herself in several interviews by saying that she wrote about courage, a theme not popular in the genres of the time. Today, courage is not only popular, it is necessary for survival.
Enter the strong female lead.
The era is the late 19th century. Babette (Stephane Audran), is a refugee, not from Syria, from counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris. Stepping off the boat on the desolate island of Jutland, Denmark, Babette is mysterious. We don’t know much about her. She is homeless and looking for a housekeeping job. The story is so visual the subtitles are not distracting, and certainly don’t slow down the film’s rapid, engaging pace.
A letter of recommendation from Achille Papin, a star from the French Opera, is all Babette carries when she arrives at the home of elderly spinster sisters, Martine and Philippa. The sisters live in an environment of characters suffering from the same Fatal Flaw! They are all clinging to an obsolete belief system that makes them feel safe and superior. They are resistant to new levels of existence and consciousness.
Enter the strong female lead.
Not unexpectedly, the sisters and the pious townsfolk are all suspicious and fearful of Babette. Their religious virtue is pretend, they whisper and gossip behind each other’s back.
Babette, an outsider, does not adhere to their sect of Christianity, practiced by the towns founder, the sister’s deceased father and town priest.
Babette is Catholic, she could be evil.
The sisters don’t want any part of her and deny her employment, but Babette offers to work for no pay, just room and board. This is an offer they can’t refuse, as they hide all the good silverware.
Babette has no ties to her former life, only a French sea captain dropping off supplies to Jutland. He brings her a lottery ticket every month for 14 years.
Through flashback we see that the sisters were beautiful when they were young. They had many impassioned suitors, including Achille Papin, but their father rejected them all. The girls obey his wishes of remaining chaste and living an austere life. The cinematography is grey and stripped of adornment, reflecting the rigid beliefs of the community.
As chance would have it, Babette wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, just as the town is preparing to celebrate the 100th birthday of its deceased founder and patriarch.
Babette, eager to show gratitude, asks if she might prepare a commemorative meal. The sisters agree. Babette, with the help of her cousin and the sea captain, imports a boatload of sensual delicacies to be used for the meal.
The townsfolk ogle at never before seen giant sea turtles, for turtle soup, quail, champagne, strawberries, chocolate, truffles and much more. They begin to worry, it looks deliciously sinful! They decide to kill two birds with one stone. They will eat the meal, but pretend not to enjoy it. The entire town is in on the plan. They sit down to the feast as if it were nothing special, except for last minute guest, Lorens Lowenhielm, the nephew of a widow of the congregation.
Lorens is an old suitor of Martine, now a famous general. He is a man of the world and former attaché. He enthusiastically comments on the magnificent cuisine, comparing it to food he consumed by a chef at Napoleon’s favorite restaurant. As Babette eavesdrops from the pantry, we realize she is the chef he is raving about.
The diner’s cold exteriors dissolve, distain for earthly pleasures is forgotten. Tinkling crystal glasses sound like ice melting. Some can’t contain a smile. Soon they are laughing, speaking freely, even singing and dancing. The diners are elevated, redeemed. They forgive old wrongs, they allow themselves to love and be loved.
The next day, still basking in the warmth of the experience, the thankful sisters assume that Babette will be leaving and returning to France with the rest of her lottery winnings. They are speechless to learn Babette spent the entire jackpot on the meal. She has nothing left!
They tearfully exclaim, “Babette, now you will be poor the rest of your life”.
Her reply is what will give you courage, especially if you are a chic writing a flick for a strong female lead.
Although I am unable to locate the original budget, it is recorded as ‘frugal’, Babbette’s Feast earned close to $4,500,000.00 and is still making money. A new Blue-Ray disc has just been released with digital restoration, a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and new interviews with director Gabriel Axel and actor Stéphane Audran.
Also available for streaming on Amazon and Hulu.