The Allegory of the Dinner Party: Hitchcock’s Rope and Axel’s Babette’s Feast

The Allegory of the Dinner Party: Hitchcock’s Rope and Axel’s Babette’s Feast

Animals feed, but only humans feast. The heart of a feast, as philosopher Josef Pieper noted, is sacrifice: to retreat from the workaday world into the landscape of leisure, to transform our food into the uselessness of art and offering. Divine in origin, the feast is a place of propitiation, appreciation, and contemplation.[1] “Feast, festival, and faith,” Roger Scruton wrote, “lift us from idleness, and endow our lives with sense.”[2]

In the Christian heritage, the feast par excellence is the Eucharist. One of the most artful allegories of the Eucharist in film is Babette’s Feast, the 1987 Danish drama and Academy Award winner for Best International Feature Film. The story follows a renowned French chef who flees the violent streets of Paris, humbles herself to cook for two unmarried sisters for no pay, later wins the lottery, and, with her winnings, lavishes on the sisters and their puritanical friends a once-in-a-lifetime feast.

The plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, Rope, also centers on a dinner party, but one that inverts Babette’s Christian charity. In Rope, two young men murder their friend, and, in the same night and in the same room, host a dinner party with the family, friends, and fiancée of the victim. If Babette’s Feast showcases allegoric scenes from the Last Supper, Rope depicts a sacrilegious Eucharistic feast and a chilling depiction of Nietzschean ethics. Taken together, these films show the distinctive human capacity to love and to do evil. As in the Book of Genesis, food is a central part of that story.

Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope, released just after World War II, begins with a murder. Unlike many suspense films, however, Rope shows the murder and its perpetrators, Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan. Dressed in suits and ties, these two young aesthetes have prepared a fancy dinner with champagne in a Manhattan penthouse. Before the dinner, they strangle to death their friend, David Kentley, with a rope in broad daylight. The film’s suspense comes not from a murder mystery but from dramatic irony: the audience has seen the murder before the dinner party guests have arrived. Brandon has hosted the dinner party ostensibly to show David’s father some first-edition books, but, in fact, Brandon has invited David’s family and friends to see whether they will discover David’s dead body.

David was a Harvard undergraduate and soon to be engaged to a New York socialite. Brandon describes David as the “perfect victim for the perfect murder”—an “immaculate murder,” he adds. David’s name is not incidental: it refers to King David, Jesus’s earthly lineage. Hitchcock, who was raised Catholic, invokes this religious imagery when Brandon and Philip lay David’s lifeless limbs in a large chest, drape a cloth over the table, and place three candles on each side of table-turned-tomb. Brandon, with the help of his altar boy, Philip, has arranged a mock altar. When Brandon places the candles on the altar, reminiscent of a Solemn High Mass, Philip exclaims, “What the devil are you doing?”—revealing the arrangement’s sacrilegious, even satanic, implications. When Mrs. Wilson, the housekeeper, arrives to help prepare the dinner party, she finds the candle arrangement “peculiar.” Brandon replies that the candles make up a “ceremonial altar . . . for our sacrificial feast.” This feast is indeed a bloodless sacrifice: David has been strangled to death by a rope; there is no blood spilled in his death. David is also an only child. Brandon and Philip’s murder, therefore, is an act against God in two ways. First, the deed is against the natural law, for they have killed an innocent man. Second, as the mock altar symbolizes, the murder is an act akin to killing Christ in a profane Eucharistic feast.

Brandon’s words and deeds reveal his Nietzschean ethics. His character, first developed in the 1929 British play by Patrick Hamilton, was inspired by a real-life murder case in 1924. The case involved two wealthy students from the University of Chicago, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who invoked Nietzsche’s philosophy in their conspiracy to commit the “perfect murder” of a teenage boy.[3] A central idea of Nietzsche’s thought is the “will to power.”[4] For Nietzsche, the good is “whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself,” and evil is “whatever springs from weakness.”[5] The “Übermench,” the superman, accomplishes this will to power by making himself “superior to humanity, in power, in loftiness of soul,—in contempt.”[6] According to Nietzsche, the superman should help the weak die, for that would be an act of “charity.”[7] This ethic, as Nietzsche intended, is the antithesis of Christianity. Someone who practices it is an “Antichrist.”

Brandon’s Nietzschean ethics unfolds throughout the film. Before the guests arrive, Brandon tells Philip that “being weak is being a mistake.” Philip asks, “Because it’s human?” Brandon replies, “Because it’s ordinary.” David’s guilt is that he is common—not a social commoner, but a man of ordinary morality. During the party, Brandon tells David’s father that the ones who can decide who is inferior are the few people who have “such intellectual and cultural superiority that they’re above the traditional moral concepts.” Echoing Nietzsche, Brandon proclaims, “Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”

In his attempt to transcend ordinary morality, Brandon calls himself an “artist” and calls the mock altar his “masterpiece.” “The power to kill,” Brandon declares, “can be just as satisfying as the power to create”—an inversion of the metaphysical principle that being is greater than non-being. In killing David, Brandon insists he is no common criminal. Common murderers kill for the sake of something else: money, revenge, and so on. But Brandon explains that he “killed for . . . the sake of killing,” which serves as evidence of his “intellectual and cultural superiority.” David’s father detects the Nietzschean overtones of Brandon’s reply and charges that Hitler held the same ethic. Brandon replies scornfully, “Hitler was a paranoiac savage. His supermen, all fascist supermen, were brainless murderers.” Brandon does not say that Hitler’s murders were wrong; instead, he sees himself as accomplishing something greater than what Hitler achieved: the “perfect murder.”

Brandon received this Nietzschean ethic at his “master’s feet”: Rupert Cadell, his former house-master and teacher. Rupert, played by Jimmy Stuart, is a World War II veteran and taught the boys that murder is good. At the dinner party, Rupert defends his belief in the presence of the incredulous and disgusted Mr. Kentley. “Think of the problems [murder] would solve,” Rupert muses. “Unemployment, poverty, standing in line for theater tickets . . . .” Rupert also publishes esoteric philosophy books that are inaccessible to most people. As Nietzsche wrote in his preface to the Antichrist, his philosophy was written for “the most rare of men. . . . The rest are merely humanity.”[8]

If Rupert is the Nietzschean master, Brandon seeks to surpass his teacher by putting these ideas into practice. But as soon as Rupert discovers that Brandon and Philip have murdered David, Rupert renounces his moral code. In the longest soliloquy in the film, Rupert tells Brandon:

You’ve thrown my own words right back in my face, Brandon . . . You’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder! . . . But there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me do it, and would never let me be a party to it now . . . You’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had about inferior or superior beings. But I thank you for that shame, because now I know that we are each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon?

These questions pattern Mr. Kentley’s demands when Rupert so smugly justified the murder of inferior people. But Brandon and Philip’s murder has fundamentally changed Rupert’s moral calculation. The “something deep inside me” that Rupert has identified is the natural law with its attendant individual rights and responsibilities.

Rupert wishes to exonerate himself from the murder, but Hitchcock judges him guilty. After wounding his hand during an altercation with Philip, Rupert uses his bloody hand to open the chest, implicitly associating Rupert’s red hand with David’s death. Rupert then shoots a gun outside the apartment to alert the police of the murder in a voiceless confession. In the last frame of the film, the stunned Rupert, still grasping the gun, sits down beside the chest and extends his arm across it. Hitchcock hints that the source of this “century of violent coercion” extends beyond Rupert’s guilt: the rope used to strangle David is also used to tie Brandon’s first edition books. The roped books lie on the tomb, symbolizing the ideas that inspired the violence whose victim is hidden underneath. After this mock Eucharistic feast, there is no resurrection, no hope—only the fear of the approaching sirens.

Babette’s Feast is also about a dinner party, but it is the inverse of the fear, coercion, and violence depicted in Rope. In Babette’s Feast, two sisters, Martine and Philippa, live in a remote village in Denmark. Their father founded a pietistic sect of Protestantism that emphasizes austerity, strict piety, and celibacy. The film opens with a shot of dried fish, a symbol of Christianity, and perhaps a sign of their specific sect as well—one that sustains life but is itself somewhat lifeless and arid. We meet Martine and Philippa, named after Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, in old age, but then flashback to their youth when a strapping if slightly undisciplined caliver officer, Lorens Löwenhielm, and an enchanting baritone, Achille Papin, attempt to court the beautiful young sisters. But both suitors prove ill-suited for the village’s religious and cultural milieu. Lorens is too worldly and free-spirited; Achille is what their father mistrustingly calls a “papist.” Achille offers singing lessons to Philippa, who shows great musical promise, but as they sing Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the seductive lyrics disrupt her pious household. We then see the sisters again in old age: they now oversee a hardened, elderly group of religious devotees who nurture their father’s quiet charism.

One stormy evening, a woman named Babette arrives on their doorstep with a letter from Achille, imploring them to take Babette in as a housekeeper. She “can cook,” he notes in great understatement. Babette is traumatized after her flight from Paris, leaving behind her dead husband and son who were killed in the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. In the first suggestion of her Christ-like character, it is Babette who chooses the sisters, not the sisters who choose Babette (cf. John 15:16). Martine and Philippa do not need a housekeeper, they cannot pay her, but they agree for her to stay. She serves them humbly for fourteen years.

One day, her fortunes dramatically change when she wins the lottery. The sisters expect Babette to use her winnings to repatriate to Paris and begin her life anew, but instead she spends her 10,000 francs on an extravagant feast for them and their congregation. The occasion is even more ironic because the feast will commemorate the hundredth birthday of their religious founder, whose teachings Babette does not follow and who assiduously avoided the opulent food that she promises to prepare. The sisters at first refuse this grace—they never give their guests anything more than a modest supper—but she persuades them to accept.

As the ingredients arrive in the village, the sisters and the other religious adherents fear that Babette’s feast will be an occasion of sin. The procession of ingredients—quail, a large turtle, a cow’s head, and other exotic specimens—shock the villagers. Martine’s fear turns apocalyptic as she dreams of a turtle burning in hell fire and of a chalice filled with blood. Martine’s fear prompts a meeting of the congregation, in which they concede that they must attend the dinner, but pledge not to talk about the food during the meal. They are willing to accept Babette’s gift but remain closed to its full grace.

As Babette’s feast begins, its analogy to the Last Supper is apparent. The grey-haired congregation numbers eleven, but Lorens’ surprise return to the village makes the dinner party twelve, paralleling the number of apostles at the Last Supper. Lorens, now a decorated general, disrupts their promise of silence by praising the sumptuous dishes and choice wine. The worldly-wise Lorens says that the meal reminds him of dining at the famous Café Anglais in Paris. One dish in particular—cailles en sarcophage, or “quail in a coffin”—reminds him of its chef. In this, Lorens is like the disciple on the road to Emmaus who recognized Jesus in “the breaking of the bread”—that is, recognizing him by the way he presents food (Luke 24:35). Babette evinces Christ-like generosity when she gives the whole bottle of wine to Lorens when he asks for another glass—a subtle reference to the wedding feast at Cana. Besides Lorens, who dons a colorful military uniform, all the dinner guests are dressed in black, evoking death. But the death depicted during Babette’s feast is not like the murder in Rope; instead, it is her willing death to self—the sacrifice of her time, culinary talents, and newly acquired fortune.

The dinner also references another death: the deaths of her husband and son in the 1871 repression of the Paris Commune. She has mourned their loss, and the loss of her life in Paris, for fourteen years—a possible reference to the number of stations of the Cross.[9] In her sudden and dangerous flee from Paris, she probably was not even able to bury them. Her signature dish, cailles en sarcophage, evokes the burial of her husband and son. (Cailles can also be used in French as a term of endearment for a loved one.) When the two sisters protest that Babette should not have spent all her lottery winnings on them, Babette admits that the dinner “wasn’t just for your sake.” As one scholar as argued, it was also to put her mourning to rest.[10] Now her sacrifice is complete. Babette reassures Philippa that although she does not have any more money, “An artist is never poor.”

The contrasting characters of Brandon and Babette represent inverted moral codes. Both characters claim to be artists, yet one seeks to destroy, the other to create. Both are hosts of a feast, but Brandon hosts the dinner party to boast of his supposed superiority, while Babette remains hidden from her guests in quiet humility. Both films deal with death, but Rope concerns a death of an innocent man and the metaphorical death of God and his law, while Babette’s Feast concerns a death to self. Babette denies herself her fortune and forgoes fame to give a splendid dinner to those who cannot repay her in money or critical appreciation. Babette’s butchering of the live animals symbolizes the sacrifice she herself is committing, and her signature “quail in a coffin” dish epitomizes that sacrifice. While the guests are scandalized by such visceral reminders of flesh—perhaps an allusion to the difficulty in hearing that Jesus’s followers must eat his flesh to obtain eternal life (John 6:51–66)—it is the sacrifice of flesh that allows the dinner guests the occasion to reconcile and receive true love.

Each dinner party begins differently as well. At Brandon’s dinner party, no one says grace before the meal. But at Babette’s feast, they all say grace, using the prayer of their religious founder: “May the bread nourish my body. May my body do my soul’s bidding. May my soul rise up to serve God eternally. Amen.” Babette’s cooking itself is also a prayer—one that neither treats bread in purely utilitarian terms, nor seeks the total abnegation of the body, but instead sacramentalizes the food. According to Lorens, Babette “transform[s] a dinner into a kind of love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.”

Perhaps the greatest contrast between these films is how the dinner party ends. In Rope, the guests leave in great distress and fear of David’s fate. The final guest, Rupert, discovers the murder and slumps next to the coffin as police sirens wail, neighbors shout, and red and green lights flash ominously into the apartment. In contrast, at Babette’s feast, the solemn faces of each guest now warm in the glow of candlelight and the ether of alcohol as they come to appreciate the gifts of food, wine, and each other. They confess, kiss, reconcile, and, at the end of the evening, hold hands singing under twilight, dissolving old wounds and resentments against one another. As promised, they have not talked about the food, but their faces reveal their inner joy.

These two films serve as emblems of fear and hope. Hitchcock’s Rope is a chilling depiction of what happens when humans deny fundamental morality. The film offers an uneasy resolution: the murderers will likely be punished, but they have not repudiated their Nietzschean ethic. A pall of fear overshadows the film’s end. By contrast, Babette’s Feast suggests one way to rebuild a society ravaged by the horrors depicted in Rope. Babette respects the freedom of others; she does not seek to convert through coercion but through love. She shows solidarity with the villagers even though they do not share the same culture or religious views. She acts beyond the bounds of justice and offers a self-sacrifice that gives life to others. As a result, peace pervades the village. It is this quiet work, village by village, that promises to restore and renew our culture.

[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, trans. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), chap. 5.

[2] Roger Scruton, Introduction to Pieper, Leisure, xii.

[3] Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen, Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 13–47.

[4] F.W. Nietzsche, The Antichrist, trans. H.L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918), 42.

[5] Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 42.

[6] Nietzsche, 44, 38.

[7] Nietzsche, 43.

[8] Nietzsche, 37–38.

[10] See Curry, “Babette’s Feast.”