Director: Gabriel Axel
Stars: Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Bibbi Andersen
Release Company: Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: NR
In 1987 Danish director Gabriel Axel translated Isak Dinesen's "unfilmable" novel, Babette's Feast into a profound visual poem. Set in a small remote village on the coast of Denmark, the simple story revolves around a pair of pious elderly sisters who have taken in a French refugee woman as a servant. Outwardly appearing to center on religion and food, it's essentially a fable that resonates at multiple levels (depending on the viewer's background and point of view).
As a Baha'i who aspires to the human station of "servitude" to mankind, I was moved by the self-sacrifices and devotion to service demonstrated by the central characters. Others may be affected by other aspects. The film's religiosity is expressed in universal, spiritual strokes that avoid secular controversy.
Since their youth sisters Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) have devoted their lives to their father, who served the village as its Protestant pastor. So isolated is the tiny village that his cult-like following reveres the man as a "saint." Two men seek companionship with the sisters, but this results only in unrequited love on their part--the sisters remain devoted to their father's work, living chaste lives in their private convent. After his death, his two daughters continue his work, striving only to serve the others in the village and host regular church services in their home.
One rainy night, Babette (Stephane Audrane) enters the sisters' lives. They are wary; after all, Babette is French and Catholic. But when they realize that her family has been killed and she has no where else to go, their compassion overcomes their doubts (that, along with a letter of recommendation). Adopting an even more austere lifestyle than the sisters, Babette serves as maid, housekeeper, and cook... soon becoming indispensable. It takes real genius to make ludfisk palatable!
The crux of the film revolves around Babette's insistence on cooking a REAL French meal for the community 100 year celebration of the deceased pastor's birthday. Touches of dry humor seep through--the looks of horror at the sight of a sea turtle, cattle head, and tiny quails destined for dinner ... and how the sisters and their restrained community plan to endure such a decadent meal.
Director Axel is an interesting personality and is among the people illuminated in the Criterion Collection supplements (along with writer Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen and the film's lead actress). His early directing career primarily dealt in bold pornography, so it's truly ironic that such a spiritually profound and understated Oscar winning film highlights his career. He wasn't in synch with his film crew; they didn't know him and thought many of his choices were insane. But Babette's Feast stands the test of time.
The script is tightly constructed while the set design, lighting, and costuming perfect match its intended tone. Blacks and grays dominate the deliberately subdued coloring scheme. Axel intends each scene to reflect a Vermeer painting, and he succeeds masterfully. Just observe the placement, textures, and tones of the fruits and meats in the kitchen--this truly matches a Danish film that could have been shot during its historical period. The director also selected actors associated with legendary Scandanavian films and directors, largely due to their age and experience, but they also lend additional credence to the project.
Every time I view the film, I am deeply moved. Its statement about the nature of the artist as servant strikes such a chord. But I can't guarantee the film will work with everyone, especially for those who grow impatient with a slow paced character driven "message" film. I will forever remember my initial theatrical screening experience in 1987 with only a handful in attendance. At the end, I was wiping a few tears, reflecting on the purity of a true artist that devotes their life to service ... but two rows ahead rose an angry college student who declared "That movie SUCKED!"