Babette's Feast
aka Babettes gæstebud
Reviewed in December 2000
Director: Gabriel Axel. Cast: Stéphane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Jarl Kulle, Vibeke Hastrup, Hanne Stensgaard, Pouel Kern, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Gudmar Wivesson, Ebba With, Erik Petersén, Bibi Andersson. Screenplay: Gabriel Axel (based on the story by Isak Denisen, aka Karen Blixen, aka Meryl Streep in Out of Africa).
Twitter Capsule: A bit thin relative to its reputation, but an understandable popular favorite with rich flavors and candlelit tones

Photo © 1987 Panorama Film/Danske Filminstitut/
Nordisk Film, © 1988 Orion Classics
Image reproduced from The Village Voice
Babette's Feast is one of those films that's hard to dislike, or even to feel indifferent about, because a tidal wave of hoopla has built around this modest little film that seems to depict a single, simple event. Everyone in the cast looks classy and unflustered, as though when they aren't making little Danish films about truffles, they're off playing Molière and Ibsen on the boards to knowing cosmopolites. To watch the film contentedly, but to wonder afterward, "What is the big deal?", places one outside the entire current of conversation, all of it doting, that has surrounded the movie since it nabbed the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and became an arthouse hit. Now, I did like Babette's Feast, which recently played on the big screen at my local art-house theater, which is trying to raise profits by showing older films that people adore. That Babette's Feast was the first movie selected for that bill confirms that enthusiasm has run high and run long for this picture; it also reconfirms, though, that as good a time as I had watching it, I am apparently missing something.

I think even the fans of Babette's Feast might concede that the film has more plot and more characters than it needs. We begin in the middle of the 19th century, in a Calvinist community on the stark shore of Denmark. Thankfully, despite lots of gray skies and cramped-looking huts, the members of this community smile a lot and seem approachable, if not ebullient; if I were a Calvinist, I'd want to hang out with these folks, not those nasties in Breaking the Waves. When we do catch the characters mid-grin, it's often because one of the local minister's two beautiful daughters, Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stensgaard), are passing by. Neither girl has any idea she is so desired by the town's young men; both of them seem sweet, genuinely uncoquettish, and sincere in their devotion to their god. Martina has only a brief moment of questioning if there is more to life, when a somewhat feckless Swedish lieutenant (Gudmar Wivesson) briefly visits the town and earnestly kisses her hand before leaving forever. Philippa likewise experiences a glimmer of new feelings when a droll, effete French Opera tenor named Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) drops into town and, struck by the beauty of her face and her voice, offers singing lessons as a means to get close to her. Philippa cancels the lessons when she realizes Achille's noble romantic wishes, but a quiver nonetheless passes over her face: is she making a mistake by avoiding the path of love, of fame, of publicly celebrated artistry?

The easiest way to screw up a film like this is to pounce on the characters' first moments of uncertainty and force them to break whatever mold they find themselves in to pursue new dreams. Refreshingly, Babette's Feast, with its wintry palette and humble scope, shows zero inclination to transform into a bathetic "awakening" narrative, which Isak Denisen's short story certainly wasn't. The story takes seriously the religious devotion and parochial commitments of its characters, who we suddenly encounter many decades later as old women, still living together, but employing a chef named Babette (Stéphane Audran), a middle-aged Parisian beauty who appeared one rainy night on their doorstep and has willingly prepared their boiled fish and ale bread ever since. In its way, the romantic, almost Gothic aura of Babette's arrival is another red herring; like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, though in a sparer Scandinavian register, Babette's Feast constantly teases us with clues of grander narratives, then gently admonishes us for demanding more of a story than its simple characters can be expected to provide.

The only real "event" in the narrative is the titular feast, which Babette asks to prepare in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the sisters' late father. After fourteen years of making simple meals for simple women, Babette—who has also, it is important to know, suddenly come into a great deal of money—wants to share her hidden culinary gifts with all of the sisters' guests, preparing a five-star French meal like none they have ever seen, or tasted. The sisters agree to Babette's request but are increasingly, amusingly embarrassed by the lavish ingredients being brought to the house: a crate of wine bottles, a bushel of quails, a sea turtle. To protect themselves from the sin of gluttony, they and the other diners secretly pledge not to utter a word about the feast they are about to receive, and not to let sensory pleasure cloud the event's true purpose of honoring the minister.

Spoilers are not possible in a film like this, and so the departed Swedish soldier will return, now a general, and very much in mind of his long-ago meeting with Martina; superficial tiffs between the townspeople will be assuaged by the magic of the food; and Babette's cooking, in its sublime, appreciative combinations of God-given ingredients, will be understood at last as both an artistic and spiritual reverie. Given such inevitable payoffs, writer-director Gabriel Axel again has the sense to keep the mood, the music, and the aroma of gentle comedy restrained. The only indulgence he fully allows himself are the slavering shots of Babette's dishes, which comprise virtually all of the film's final half-hour.

Writing about Babette's Feast reminds me of why it is so likable, but it may also be apparent why it does not necessarily constitute stellar filmmaking. Most of what makes the film so lovely is borrowed from Denisen, and the shots of the feast, as delicious as it looks, are enticing because the food, not the photography, is exquisite. Babette's Feast is spare and agreeable, as humbly congenial as its characters, but do not expect the story to say anything new, or anything particularly lasting. That Axel won the Oscar over Louis Malle's heartbreaking Au revoir, les enfants, a major upset when it occurred, still seems like one today. Sometimes, though, life confers savory pleasures on people who aren't expecting them, a theme which Babette's Feast knows a thing or two, but not more than that, about. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Special Mention)

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