Every young Christian comes to a point in his life when he must decide between devoting his talents exclusively to the work of the Lord or using these talents in the world to the glory of God. So it is with Babette's Feast, a foreign film directed by Gabriel Axel set in a small ocean side Danish community. Two sisters of the town choose to devote their talents to the work of the Lord by passing up incredible worldly opportunities, but it takes a similar act of the outsider Babette to change the hearts of the small Puritan congregation started by the sisters' father. This theme of an artist's choice of how to use her talents is developed throughout the film through the director's choice of structure, viewpoint, backdrop, and texture.
The director uses the overall structure in this film to put emphasis on Babette, even though much of the movie is devoted to the lives of the sisters Martina and Phillipa. We are introduced to Babette at the beginning and told that she serves in the house of the sisters, elderly women at this point of the story. As soon as we become interested in the irony of a servant in the house of two Puritan women, the film flashes back to tell us the about the lives of the two women and the town that led to Babette coming to their village from France. Through this use of flashback, the audience is given a sense of interest and suspense on how Babette will come into the sisters' lives.
The use of subplots in the structure of the film also adds to the movie's theme. The relationship of the sisters to two men from outside the town sets up side stories that set the sisters and the men as foils and also tie back into the larger story later in the film. Both men come to the small town and each fall in love with one of the sisters, but both give up because of the women's devotion to their father and to his congregation. The first, the Army officer Lowenhielm, returns to devote his life to worldly success as a decorated general. He returns later in the film to see if this opposing path from that of Martina has been the better one, and concludes that it has been futile. The second, the famous opera singer Achille, presents Phillipa with the opportunity to be the greatest opera singer in the world. Of course she declines, and later in life Achille concedes that perhaps she made the better choice because he has ended up alone and unknown. Consequently, it is Achille who sends Babette to the sisters for refuge.
As these characters are introduced and developed, the director uses various viewpoints to influence the audience's opinion of their situations. The focus of the camera is rarely on the father, focusing instead on his congregation and his daughters. This establishes him as a flat character that comes across only as possessive and controlling of the two sisters. In the large church setting, we are often given only a close-up of the faces of the sisters, perhaps suggesting their purity and beauty as they never take their eyes from their father. We are made a participant around the tightly squeezed dinner table at the pastor's house, implying the closeness of the congregation at first and their disharmony later as the small town becomes too close.
The lives and moods of these Puritan people are further emphasized through Axel's choice of backdrops such as colors and sounds. Coloring plays a significant role by establishing the sisters and the town as simple and even dull through their dark clothing and dimly lit houses. Even the setting of the town suggests a dreary people through rainy and cloudy whether and simple dwellings. On the other hand, the vivid colors of the general, the opera singer, and Babette show them to be exciting, worldly people. The contribution of sound track to this movie is unusual because the hymns add dialogue in addition to music. In example, the song that Achille practices with Phillipa adds to the emotional climax of the situation through its increasing volume and tempo in addition to its words, "I am afraid of my own joy."
Many of the elements of the backdrop and setting are repeated or developed to the point that they become symbols or motifs in the film, adding to its texture. Background elements contribute to the film, such as the repeated shot of the picture of the sisters' father in their dining room. Even after he has passed away, the congregation still sees him as judging part of their congregation. The picture also symbolizes the presence of the pastor in his daughters' lives as they continue to live in solitude and devotion to the church long after his death. One of the church members repeatedly says, "Hallelujah," perhaps to suggest a child like faith that has been easily swayed by those around him. The congregation also insists on singing a hymn in almost every situation, even if the words of the hymn do not fit with the situation or the condition of their hearts. In other words, we are not saved by our actions but by our faith.
These literary elements work together to develop the theme of the film portrayed in the main complications of the characters. Phillipa, Martina, Babette, Achille, and Lo wenhielm must all choose between investing their talents in the world or in God. Achille and Lo wenhielm choose the world, only to find it unfulfilling. Phillipa and Martina choose to devote themselves to the church, only to end up with a disgruntled congregation because they sacrificed for religion instead of love. Babette captures the true theme of the film by giving all she has for the sake of the feast as revealed in the last scene of the film. God uses the feast of this worldly woman to change the hearts of a religious people, showing the theme to be a little more complex than originally thought. Christians must decide whether to invest their talents in the world or in the work of the Lord, but even the work of the Lord is in vain if the sacrifice is not made in love. The sisters learn to embrace this lesson as they embrace Babette in the close of the film.