There are two main reasons why Babette's Feast became such a loved heartwarmer during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One was undoubtedly its win of the Oscar for Foreign Language Film, and everything in Danish veteran Gabriel Axel's film screams "perfect Oscar voter fodder", in that well-behaved, well-meaning, well-made, uplifting, effortlessly classical-European mode Americans fall for easily.

     But there is another, more intriguing one: Babette's Feast adapts a short story from Danish writer Karen Blixen, who had been portrayed by Meryl Streep in Sydney Pollack's wildly successful biographical romance Out of Africa. Essentially, Mr. Axel's film was in the right place in the right time - but reducing its worth to the circumstantial evidence of awards and context does a disservice to this lovely, moving little film with a lot to recommend it.

     Ms. Blixen's story is set in a remote fishing village on the coast of Jutland where French refugee Babette (Stéphane Audran) works as servant to Filippa and Martine (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel), the spinster daughters of a now deceased puritanical minister. Also scripting, Mr. Axel perfectly embeds the nested storytelling at the tale's heart as he weaves the three flashbacks that explain how Babette, who in her previous life was an acclaimed chef, first came to the village, and how she is connected with the two men who unsuccessfully court the sisters, a dashing cavalry officer and a French opera singer, eloquently intertwining the film's central theme of the many different shapes of faith, generosity, kindness and love. The handling by Mr. Axel (close to 70 when he shot the film and whose only significant international success this was) is hyper-traditional and self-effacing, so confident in its awareness that the narrative structure is down pat and the performances can back it up that what might easily become cumbersome or plodding in other hands becomes quietly powerful here.

     Although the film is called Babette's Feast, it's actually the sisters who are at the tale's heart, with Ms. Audran's passionate cook being a mere "enabler", whose grand meal brings out the slow awareness by Filippa and Martine as well as by their reluctantly puritan guests of the precise grace they have been skipping by refusing the outside world. A perfect example of how a good story can be turned into a fine film, and of how classicism can be a boon.

Cast: Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Bibi Andersson

Director: Gabriel Axel
Screenplay: Mr. Axel, from the short story Babette's Feast by Karen Blixen
Cinematography: Henning Kristiansen (colour, processing by Johan Ankerstjerne)
Music: Per Nørgård
Designer: Sven Wichmann
Costumes: Annelise Hauberg
Editor: Finn Henriksen
Producers: Just Betzer, Bo Christensen (Panorama Film International in association with Nordisk Film and the Danish Film Institute)
Denmark, 1987, 107 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 3rd 2012


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