Director: Gabriel Axel
Production: Panorama Film International; color; 35mm; running time: 102 minutes. Released in Denmark 28 August 1987; distributed in USA by Orion Classics. Filmed on location in Jutland, Denmark.
Producers: Just Betzer and Bo Christensen; screenplay: Gabriel Axel, from the story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen); photography: Henning Kristiansen; editor: Finn Hendriksen; sound: Hans-Eric Ahrn; production design: Sven Wichmann; costume designer: Annelise Hauberg; music: Per Norgaard, with additional music by Mozart and Brahms; gastronomic consultant: Jan Petersen.
Cast: Stéphane Audran (Babette); Bodil Kjer (Filippa); Birgitte Federspiel (Martine); Jarl Kulle (Lorenz Lowenhielm); Jean-Philippe Lafont (Achille Papin); Bibi Andersson (Swedish court lady); Ghita Norby (narrator); Hanna Stensgaard (Young Filippa); Vibeki Hastrup (Young Martine); Gudmar Wivesson (Young Lorens); Else Petersen (Solveig); Pouel Kern (the minister/father); Erik Petersen (Erik).
Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 1988; Rouen Nordic Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, 1988; British Academy Award for Best Film Not in the English Language, 1989.
Chevassu, F., and D. Parra, "La festin de Babette/Entretien avece Gariel Axel/Entretien avec Stéphane Audran," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 437, April 1988.
"Babette's Fest," in EPD Film (Berlin), vol. 5, no. 12, December 1988.
Daems, P., "De discrete charme van Stéphane Audran," in Film + Televisie (Brussels), no. 381, February 1989.
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Few could have predicted that an unheralded Danish film would become one of the more esteemed European films of the late 1980s. Babette's Feast unexpectedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film as well as a number of other international awards; became one of the most popular—indeed, beloved—films on the American art-house circuit; inspired ambitious restaurants to offer a menu duplicating the titular feast (at a princely cost); and set a pathway for more recent "great food" movies like Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman and Stanley Tucci's Big Night. Its director, whose first film appeared in 1955 and who was 68 when the film was released, was relatively unknown outside Scandinavia before the success of Babette and has remained so. Thus, the film's non-Danish admirers have been left to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that its success, even perfection of a sort, was due to a felicitous coming together of a classic novella faithfully adapted, an excellent cast with particularly memorable faces, and splendid photography capturing not only those faces but the somber landscapes, the spartan dwellings, and of course the sumptuous food.
Axel changed Isak Dinesen's original setting amid Norwegian fjords and mountains to a flatter Danish Jutland—possibly for budgetary reasons, but certainly with dramatic appropriateness, considering the greater austerity of the land to match the sober lives of the villagers (no competition here for the spectacle of the dinner). He also offered a village of uniform gray houses rather than the "toy-town. . . painted gray, yellow, pink and many other colors" of the story. Changes in the narrative are slight, but telling. For example, soon after Babette, the mysterious Parisian political refugee, is taken in as a servant by a unmarried pair of kindly but puritanical Danish sisters, she is taught how to make their dreary daily food of cod and ale-bread, a kind of porridge. In the story, "during the demonstration the Frenchwoman's face became absolutely expressionless," but she soon learns the task, and eventually the food. The food, which the sisters distribute in daily charity rounds, "acquired a new, mysterious power to stimulate and strengthen their poor and sick." But in Axel's film, we see Babette buy onions from the grocer and pick wild herbs for her dish, and watch the pleased faces of the indigent sampling her version (as well as their chagrin when Babette is briefly out of town and the sisters' sludgy recipe is revived).
The overall arc of the story remains the same. We are immediately introduced to the elderly sisters and the other villagers, disciples of the ascetic sect founded by the women's father, then learn of each sister's missed opportunity for a youthful love affair—Martine with a young officer army officer and Filippa with an opera singer who spots her vocal talent—and of the arrival of Babette, before we return to the present time (about 1887) for the main event of the tale. In his lengthy flashback Axel dwells more than Dinesen on smart details of the officers' barracks, and he inserts a cameo for Bibi Andersson in the parallel story of the opera singer (appropriately a Don Giovanni who fails to win over his Danish Zerlina). In both episodes the color and dash of the more elegant settings bring out the plainness of the sisters' lives all the more.
In the second half Axel adheres scrupulously to Dinesen's tale, while using Stephane Audran's elegant bearing and air of "having lived"—not to mention auburn hair—as a foil to the sweet simplicity of the sisters. (The actresses playing the latter with great poignancy, both veterans of Danish film, look like an elderly Loretta Young and Olivia de Havilland.) In story and film Babette wins a lottery, asks the sisters for permission to serve them and the other disciples a celebration dinner on the evening of their late father's centenary (though "a very plain supper with a cup of coffee was the most sumptuous meal to which they had ever asked any guest to sit down"), terrifies them with her imported ingredients (a huge live turtle is only part of what they now fear will be some kind of witch's sabbath), and ultimately serves a feast that only a great artist, once chef of one of Paris' greatest restaurants, could conceive and execute. The heart of the drama—and Axel and his crew rise to the occasion—is the breakdown of the disciples' resistance to the splendid meal, and their attainment of a joyful, life-changing state of grace that seems to go beyond the aesthetic and sensuous into the spiritual—both touching and comical to watch.
Axel's succession of images builds steadily toward the dinner itself: the procession of the foodstuffs past the houses of astonished villagers, the ironing of the white tablecloth, the close-ups of quail carcasses being plucked and carved up, as matter-of-factly as in a Dutch still life. As in the story, the surprise extra guest—the officer, now a retired general, who has lived in Paris—provides an entry to the scene for us, as the one person perfectly cognizant of how truly extraordinary the meal is. (The other guests watch him for clues on how to eat the odder fare.) Otherwise there is no one center of attention: we take in the glow of glasses of sherry and champagne and red wine against the black clothing and white hair of the diners; the General's comical astonishment over each course and beverage; the sounds of cutlery and conversation and champagne fizzing (gentle soundtrack music is intermittent and discreet); the neighbor called Solveig taking wonderful delight in her wine; the carriage man—a bit player straight out of a John Ford film (as is the diner who can't hold back an occasional "Hallelujah!")—hanging out in the kitchen and sampling the food and drink; Erik, the teenage server, soberly carrying out Babette's instructions; and Babette herself taking an occasional moment to savor the fabulous wine she has ordered. Many of these details are inventions of the filmmaker that broaden Dinesen's love feast to include all the characters, not just those at the table.
In the novella it snows the night of the feast but the sky clears momentarily when the guests leave the sisters' house, slipping in the drifts and playing like children as they hold hands. In the film there is only a misty rain before the feast, but Axel's diners too hold hands under a starry sky—here, forming a circle around the well as they sing a hymn. The snow, a cozy white blanket in Dinesen, here begins to fall only in the final moments, and is seen only through the cottage windows, as a hint of death or transience to accompany the dialogue and a guttering candle. But the overwhelming sense of joy as well as evanescence remains, and the film itself, like the dinner it dramatizes, becomes an example of great art springing from what the sophisticated world may call an obscure setting.