Despite its popularity as a “food film” and icon of the Slow Food movement, one must admit that Babette’s Feast (directed by Axel Gabriel, 1986) disappoints. In its saccharine treatment of the relations between Babette and her employers, Gabriel’s film fails to honor the spirit of Isak Dinesen’s original, published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1950 and subsequently reprinted in Dinesen’s final collection, Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). Why does this matter? Because in softening the edges of Babette’s character, the film ignores her political force and transformative potential—a force all the more urgent for the 2010s, when women from Sana’a to Seattle have been mobilizing for political change with astonishing energy and hope. “Babette” deserves better.
I believe Babette’s story is more interesting as a parable of specifically French politics than as a “food film,” and that it is indebted to two icons of French womanhood whose identities are deeply invested in food, fire, and revolution. In Dinesen’s heroine we can hear distant echoes of both the poissarde–the fishmonger or market woman of the French Revolution—and the pétroleuse or fire-starter of the Commune. “Babette’s Feast” allows the lineage from the poissarde to the pétroleuse to come into focus because its heroine is not only a cook she is also a former pétroleuse. And even if the politics of her past were muted by the film-maker in 1986, the relationship between food, fire and revolution is too potent a mix to ignore today.
The film’s shortcoming is unsurprising when one realizes how apolitical most interpretations of Isak Dinesen’s work and her heroine have been. In order to bring this lost subtext back into light, I am developing a short work that follows three moves: first, a quick glance at two moments in French political history will reveal the cultural work done by the poissarde and the pétroleuse in the revolutionary eras of 1789-94 and 1871. Second, textual analysis of culinary allusions and narrative asides in “Babette’s Feast” will demonstrate how Dinesen’s heroine incarnates both the pride of a culinary genius and the pétroleuse’s menace to society. Finally, a comparison of the story’s finale will show how the book’s heroine—unlike her avatar on the screen—transforms radicalism into a different kind of rigor, a more life-giving and artistic ambition than film-goers can see. In her portrayal of an appealing working–class woman who is both an unrepentant revolutionary and an authentic artist, Dinesen’s tale reveals a stronger affirmation of human potential than has yet been realized.
Any film-makers out there? Time for a remake, a truly revolutionary rendition of “Babette’s Feast.” Stay tuned for the fiery details…