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Babette’s Feast
(Babettes gæstebud)
Director: Gabriel Axel
Screenplay: Gabriel Axel (based on the story “Babette’s Feast” by Isak Dinesen
Stars: Stéphane Audran (Babette Hersant), Bodil Kjer (Filippa), Birgitte Federspiel (Martine), Jarl Kulle (Gen. Lorens Löwenhielm), Jean-Philippe Lafont (Achille Papin), Bibi Andersson (Svensk hofdame), Ghita Nørby (Narrator), Asta Esper Hagen Andersen (Anna), Thomas Antoni (Svensk Lieutenant), Gert Bastian (Poor Man), Viggo Bentzon (Fisherman in Rowboat), Vibeke Hastrup (Young Martine), Therese Hojgaard Christensen (Martha), Pouel Kern (The Minister)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1987
Country: Denmark
Babette’s Feast Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Babette’s Feast Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud), based on a short story by the Danish author Isak Dinesen, is a simple film of great feeling and generosity. At its core it is about love and grace, and while it is easy to be cynical and write it off as a feel-good trifle, I see it as a lovely ode to the idea that characters of different temperaments, sentiments, beliefs, and dispositions can find common ground and that redemption is always possible. It doesn’t pretend that people don’t make mistakes and feel regret and that even the best of intentions can lead to narrow-mindedness, but it treats human flaws with such munificence and good will that it leaves you feeling rich and full, much like the characters feel after the titular feast.

The story takes place in a tiny fishing village in Denmark in the late 19th century. The main characters are a pair of sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), who are both beautiful and talented and raised to be extremely devout by their father (Pouel Kern), a Danish Protestant minister. He keeps his daughters close to him, so much so that he runs off any potential suitors, including a Swedish cavalry officer named Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle) and a French opera singer named Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont). Much later in life, after the minister has died and Filippa and Martine have continued his life’s work, worshipping with their small sect and tending to the poor, Achille re-enters their life with a request that they take in Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran), a Frenchwoman who has lost her entire family during the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871 and must leave the country. Filippa and Martine take her in, and she works for them as a cook and general servant for the next decade and a half, becoming an integral part of the small village.

When Babette stumbles into money via a winning lottery ticket, she requests that she be allowed to cook a feast for Filippa, Martine, and the elderly members of their religious sect in honor of the revered minister’s 100th birthday. In keeping with their ascetic ways, the sisters had planned a small dinner, but Babette has a much different idea: a exquisite, multi-course traditional French dinner, the contents of which are so foreign and therefore disturbing to the sisters that they misunderstand them as spiritual danger, which is why they and the others decide to consume the meal out of respect to Babette, but not to give into any of the epicurean delights it might offer (“We will not speak of the food or drink,” they decide, as if articulating any kind of pleasure might open them up to spiritual decline). The last third of the film focuses entirely on Babette’s preparation and execution of the meal, which becomes a touching, transformative event for everyone involved.

In virtually every sense, Babette’s Feast is a subtle, observant film, one that rewards open-mindedness and generosity with cinematic pleasure both visual and thematic. The cinematography by veteran Henning Kristiansen was visually inspired by the earthen tones of Vermeer paintings, and Axel, a veteran of Danish television and film with more than five decades of experience behind the camera, conveys a gentle sense of confidence that pervades every frame of the film. Delicately paced but never slow, understated but imminently accessible, Babette’s Feast builds steadily to its culinary climax, which Axel punctuates with a delightful sense of physical comedy that undercuts religious rigidity without ever mocking the characters’ devotion. Watching the stern-faced men and women around the table as they try, yet consistently fail, to not react to the sensory pleasures of Babette’s feast is magnificently funny, but also touching because we recognize that these are good people trying to do what they genuinely believe is right.

Axel wants us to smile at the silliness of their fears, but also respect the conviction from which it springs, which is why there is never a moment of overt mockery or sudden revelation. Rather, the characters are allowed to save face, maintaining (for the most part) the dignity of their convictions while also realizing that the pleasure of good food and drink is not only not spiritually dangerous, but possibly even good for the soul, especially when Babette reveals in the final moments what the feast has meant for her. Through her feast, her final act of artistic creation, she provides a moment in which, as the wonderfully astute Lorens Löwenhielm notes in his dinner speech, “Righteousness and bliss have kissed each other.” How often do we see that happen?

Babette’s Feast Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Babette’s Feast is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio Danish/French/Swedish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video interview with director Gabriel Axel
  • Video interview with actor Stéphane Audran
  • Karen Blixen—Storyteller (1995) documentary
  • Visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda
  • Video interview with sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson about the significance of cuisine in French culture
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu and Dinesen’s 1950 story
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJuly 16, 2013

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s Blu-Ray of Babette’s Feast features a new 2K digital film restoration, which was made from the original 35mm camera negative. The image is superb throughout, with beautifully nuanced detail that brings out all the varied colors and textures of Babette’s great culinary creation, whether it be the slickness of the caviar or the flaky delicacy of a pastry. The colors are beautifully presented, maintaining the subdued, earthen tones that were so crucial to Gabriel Axel’s visual design for the film. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel surround, having been nicely remastered from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    While MGM’s 2001 DVD of Babette’s Feast was bare-bones, Criterion’s new Blu-Ray release is jammed with an impressive array of supplements. Although there is no audio commentary, there are two new video interviews, one with director Gabriel Axel and one with actress Stéphane Audran. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda offers an intriguing visual essay that examines the film’s visual design, while sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson explains in a new video interview about the significance of cuisine in French culture. For those interested in the author of the short story on which the film is based, the disc includes Karen Blixen—Storyteller, a feature-length Danish documentary from 1995 about the life and work of Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen (most Americans are familiar with her as the author and central figure of Out of Africa, which Sydney Pollack made into an Oscar-winning film in 1985). The disc also includes a U.S. theatrical trailer, while the insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu and the entirety of Dinesen’s 1950 short story.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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