Keen cineastes will have noticed the 25th anniversary cinema re-issue of Babette's Feast at the end of last year: winner of the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Babette, as it turns out, is also the perfect Christmas movie, on account of its bleakly puritannical first seventy-five minutes being followed by a twenty-five minute conclusion of such sumptuous generosity that you can't help but come out of the movie house feeling better about yourself and indeed, the rest of mankind.
The tale is simple: a Parisian masterchef - the eponymous Babette - having fled the chaos of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, finds herself a refugee in Jutland of all places, among a small coastal community of impossibly pious and self-denying Danes. Unlike the voluptuous French for whom she has been catering all her life, these live on prayer, fresh water, mortification of the flesh and salted fish. They all seem to be about eighty years old. Full of Christian charity, they take her in.
Time passes. She toils among the seaweed and ludfisk. And then - and I don't think I'm giving too much away, here - Babette comes into a small fortune. Salvation: she can at last afford to leave Jutland and the muttering Danes, and return to a more congenial environment. But does she? No, in a spirit of love and gratitude she prepares the pinched little community the most delicious and extravagant meal it has ever eaten. Which also means wine, a commodity they normally avoid - a fine amontillado to go with the turtle soup, and then, famously, an 1860 Veuve Clicquot and an 1845 Clos Vougeot. By the end, a quiet ecstasy has overcome the oldsters, and they stream out into the night, beneath the diamond canopy of Heaven. And Babette has spent every last sou of her fortune.
Obviously, it's all in the telling. One stroke of genius was to cast Stéphane Audran as Babette. I don't want to get into a debate, right now, about who was the greatest French screen goddess (Bardot? Deneuve? Arletty? Isabelle Huppert?) but Audran is definitely among them. And perfect for Babette - beautiful, austere and proudly sensual. Cunningly enough, her genius as a cook is given full and disinterested recognition in the mouth of one of the more unlikely guests at the feast, a Swedish General who not only knows his way around the table, but around the wine cellar as well. High comedy ensues as he tucks, bewildered, into his Blinis Demidoff and his Caille en Sarcophage, wondering how a bunch of hayseeds can have magicked up such an incredible meal.
The setting, too, is perfectly realised. Karen Blixen's orginal story, Babettes Gaestebud, was set in Norway. But when the film's director, Gabriel Axel, went in search of locations, he found Norway too picturesque to sustain the note of spartan perversity that he wanted to evoke. So he came home to Jutland, whose western edge was quite horrible enough for his purposes. He had a fake late-nineteenth century coastal village thrown up amid the sand dunes - bleak and inhospitable as a bus stop in North Shields - and started filming. And the food: it appears as a genuine epiphany, spiritual and physical at the same time, created with devotion, consumed reverently, a kind of miracle; which, in the late nineteenth century, the greatest cooking probably was, probably in a way we don't understand any more. The booze, too: when the Swedish General realises that he's drinking a forty-year-old Clos Vougeot, you gasp with him, so intense is the moment.
Like any good film, it throws up more questions than answers. Is the whole event a critique of the futile spirituality of the Danish believers? Is Babette's sacrifice of her wealth a necessary atonement for a life spent in the service of a superevolved hedonism? Is the film humanist or quietly theist? Is it an incredibly roundabout way of hymning the pleasures of a really good dinner? Is it, even, about the wine, without which all the rest is necessary but not sufficient?
To be honest, when I saw the film back in the Eighties, once the glow of the fabulous Ms. Audran had worn off a bit, the thing I couldn't get out of my mind was the Clos Vougeot, and the supressed rapture with which the General pronounces that name. Clos Vougeot: just saying it is luxurious. At the time, I'd never heard of the stuff. Years later, I actually had some in a poncy restaurant somewhere in London. I can't really remember what it tasted like; but I think it must have been good. Or was that the movie talking?