Superficially resembling many an awards-bait horse that followed in its wake, Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast may not be an auteurist classic, but it remains one of the most sublime and transporting of all food-centric movies. Adapted from a short story by Karen Blixen, the Danish baroness who wrote as Isak Dinesen, it's an elemental tale of faith, cultural discomfort, and artistry as both a key to identity and an act of love. Elderly sisters Filippa and Martine (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel), the flamekeepers of an ascetic Christian sect founded by their late father, have settled into a charity-based but routine life in a village along the "grandiose and unspoiled" Jutland coast. Filippa's long-departed French suitor charges them with the safety and employment of Babette (Stéphane Audran, shining with quiet authority), a widowed refugee from the Paris commune who lives as their cook, applying her gastronomic skill to the most pedestrian of Scandinavian dishes, until a financial windfall enables her to prepare a special nouvelle cuisine banquet for the women and their increasingly fractious community.
Textured with muted colors, Axel's film faithfully follows Blixen's plot structure with a leisurely paced, first-act flashback that reveals the sisters' youthful flirtations with an army lieutenant and the Frenchman, a clownish opera star who scares off his quarry by capping a Don Giovanni duet with a fervent kiss. (Singing "I'm fearful of my joy," Filippa is, like the other Puritan characters, fatefully averse to sensuality and its rewards.) When Babette's kitchen wizardry allows the ladies to devote all their time to their neighbors, the villagers overlook her alien ways—haggling with the fishmonger, clumsily ordering groceries in broken Danish—until the continental feast raises the threat of a "witches' sabbath," inducing nightmares when a large turtle is seen being carted by the cook into her kitchen for an unholy soup. The tour-de-force, climactic dinner sequence crucially intercuts the faces of the guests, who uncomprehendingly but helplessly fall under the spell of quail-and-truffle-stuffed pastries and Veuve Clicquot, taking cues from the astounded general (Jarl Kulle as the aged ex of the non-singing sister) who finds the unexpected taste of Paris elevating him into a state of grace. Axel doesn't hit symbolic notes too hard (12 diners at a sacramental supper, and the shared pleasure of the flesh melting old feuds between the townsfolk), and Blixen's wit and crafty plotting provide a blueprint for multiple emotional payoffs as the guests, the sisters, and Babette all attain the clarity of self-knowledge.
Written in 1950 in English and published in, of all venues, the Ladies' Home Journal, "Babette's Feast" was fashioned by Blixen on a semi-joking dare to write for the consumption of American readers. If Axel cannily hedges Babette's double-edged last scene with the sisters, de-emphasizing her Communard past and softening her motivation for the dinner ("For my own sake" on the page), it paid off not only with a foreign-language Oscar, but the touching penultimate shot of an embrace between two thwarted artists, and an afterlife for its heroine's recipe for cailles en sarcophage. Babette's Feast drips not with the treacle of a meal made for mature middlebrow matrons, but the piquant sauce of a timeless parable.
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Criterion's 2K digital transfer, made from the film's 35mm camera negative, is lustrous, reproducing the full range of grays and muted primary colors originally captured by Henning Kristiansen's cinematography. I can't swear that it isn't an improvement on the theatrical iteration I saw 25 years ago. The remastered surround soundtrack is nearly as pristine, clean enough to lend special focus to the scraping of spoons and the slurping of drink in the movie's crucial eating scenes.
The disc's supplements focus particularly on the relationship between the film and its source story. A 1995 feature-length Danish documentary on Karen Blixen offers up a far more mercurial, compelling character than the popular image embodied by Meryl Streep in the plodding, Oscar-winning Out of Africa. Besides excerpts from her oeuvre, and interviews with friends and associates, clips of the author's TV appearances from the 1950s and early '60s reveal a wispy, elegant, inescapably vain diva of popular literature performing for often-rapt hosts and audiences. (Her narration of a story about a letter from the King of Denmark that she used as a healing totem for injured or sick workers on her Kenyan coffee farm is as masterful as it is, it seems, queasily fictional.)
Interviews with Babette's Feast director Gabriel Axel and star Stéphane Audran make it clear that it was Out of Africa's success that made the adaptation of another Blixen work commercially viable. Both label the story "a fable"; Axel describes his casting of veterans of the films of Carl Dreyer in the supporting cast and the influence of Vermeer's palette on the film's muted colors, while Audran speaks of how well her "unintelligible" Danish fit the character, and her collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld on her costumes. For context, sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson examines the centrality of cuisine in French culture, and how the "rationalized system" of the Gallic kitchen enables Babette to become "an artist of the everyday." A visual essay by Michael Almereyda analyzes some of Axel's changes to Blixen's story, such as saving outright mockery for the sisters' "respectable" suitors; the film's juxtaposition of "immanence and transcendence"; and Orson Welles's fascination with Blixen's work. Finally, the set's booklet includes the short story, and a piece by critic Mark Le Fanu which concludes that the classicism of Blixen's tale is well served by the film's "surrealistic particularity" and Audran's serene presence.
This impeccably plated set is as savory as the brains sucked out of a quail's head by Jarl Kulle's General Löwenhielm.