This Danish film, which won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. Written and directed by Gabriel Axel, this literate and lovely-to-look-at film compels us to meditate upon the needs of the flesh and the needs of the spirit. It is also about choices, talent, gratitude, friendship, grace, and hope.
Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stensgard) live with their father, the Vicar (Pouel Kern), in a small fishing village on Denmark's Jutland peninsula during the late nineteenth century. He is the founder of an austere religious sect that has renounced all earthly pleasures. The sisters are devoted to the Vicar and have remained unmarried. The young women's beauty and purity, however, does not go unnoticed, and two visitors to the community are changed forever by knowing them.
Lorens Lowenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson) is a handsome cavalry officer staying with his aunt in a nearby manor. While out riding, he sees Martina. Infatuated, he gains admittance to the Vicar's prayer circle to be close to her. When Lorens realizes that he can never be accepted, he leaves, telling Martina that "some things are impossible."
A year later, Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont), a famous opera singer from Paris, comes to stay in the village. Hearing Philippa singing in church, he is convinced that he has discovered a new prima donna and offers her singing lessons. She is frightened by his attention and the passion in the music, however, and decides not to continue the lessons. Papin departs and is not heard from until 35 years later when he sends a letter of introduction for a woman who has had to flee Paris, Babette (Stephane Audran).
The Vicar is long dead, and Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) live modestly, leading meetings of the remaining faithful and delivering food to the poor and shut-ins. Although they can offer her only room and board, they agree to take Babette in as their housekeeper. Soon, she has become an indispensable member of their household and the community.
After Babette has been there for 14 years, she receives word from Paris that she has won the lottery. She asks the sisters' permission to use her own money to prepare a "real French dinner" for the upcoming celebration of the anniversary of the Vicar's birth. They agree to grant her this favor, but as the event approaches, they are overcome with doubts, confused about what to expect at the extravagant meal. With the other members of their group, they decide to avoid temptation and not say a word about the food and drink.
On the day of the celebration, they receive word that Mrs. Lowenhielm will bring her nephew, none other than Lorens. The table is set with china, silver, linen, lace, and candles. Babette has imported from Paris all the ingredients, including a selection of fine wines. While the members of the religious community keep their vow of silence about the meal, Lorens articulates their joy and surprise in Babette's feast.
D. H. Lawrence once stated: "The sense of wonder, that is our sixth sense. And it is a natural religious sense." This film speaks lovingly to all six of your senses.