Blu-ray Review: Babette’s Feast

Gabriel Axel’s celebrated 1987 Danish arthouse hit Babette’s Feast – winner of the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and now available on a new Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection – will most assuredly make you hungry. And thirsty for wine. And, perhaps most importantly, eager for a blissful life. Babette’s Feast is a tiny, tiny film, whose drama all boils down to a single house-bound meal in a remote village in Denmark, wherein all the supper guests save one have decided not to speak a word. And yet, it is also a film that spans some pretty meaty themes like spiritual strength, the power of food, food as art, and ultimately a tale of infinite grace as a default mode of operation. Sweet, quirky, profoundly Christian (in the philosophical sense, although a few Danish Lutherans have their moments), and oddly bliss-inducing, Babette’s Feast is a sumptuous pastoral for lovers of quiet European cinema.

The story is almost fable-like in its simplicity. Babette’s Feast follows a pair of preacher’s daughters named Martine and Filipa (Brigitte Fenderpiel and Bodil Kjer) who, after a series of romantic near-misses with the painfully superficial Danish upper crust (all seen in flashback in a 40-minute opening that could have been shaved a bit), have returned to their teeny tiny home village in a remote plain on the Danish countryside. They have taken up the responsibilities of their respected father, although the religious services have been reduced to elderly people bickering with one another, and a few rote hymns. Into this world comes Babette (Stéphane Audran), a mysterious French woman who has vague connections to the women’s father. She moves in as their maid, and works there for next to nothing for 14 years.

When Babette suddenly wins the French lottery (!), she decides to use a portion of her winnings to throw an enormous dinner party for everyone in the village, including one of her hostess’ former suitors. The villagers are suspicious of this mysterious new decadence entering their village, and agree not to say anything about the food at all as a form of preemptive protest. The feast is, however, so unbelievably rich and wonderful, that they find themselves complimenting not the food, but one another. By the end of the feast – and endlessly mouthwatering scenes of exotic French cuisine being prepared in exquisite detail – everyone has entered into an almost holy state of ineffable pleasure. Everyone is happy. Babette has revealed herself to be an artist of the highest order, and creating sumptuous meals has always been her favorite thing to do. Such a simple story of simple happiness. But, at the same time, an odd and quiet revolution in the lives of the dour old worshipers. They have been reminded that life can be great.

The very definition of a pastoral, and giving off mildly playful picaresque notes, Babette’s Feast takes place mostly in tiny thatched-roof cottages, large damp plains, and a few distinguished French interiors. The lead characters are all older and stuffy, but also kinda funny. The drama all hinges on a gorgeously photographed feast, and it’s a subtle film about redemption. I short, it’s the kind of art film that the mockers of “art film” typically go to when mocking “art film.” Slow-moving, largely inconsequential, and having a gentle message and only a small surprise at the very end, I imagine most lovers of harder-edged and more eventful films will grow restless. There is no action or death or darkness to temper the proceedings for fans of melodramas. What we have here is Ingmar Bergman Lite. The philosophy is nestled in there, but it’s not a big philosophy, and it’s not devastating. It’s just sweet and gentle.

In a world that values “cool” and “awesome” over sweet and gentle, Babette’s Feast may feel stodgy and old-fashioned. But what Axel has done is create a visual meal that is so titillating to look at, and the reaction so genuine, that we begin to see more than a meal of old people. We see goodness breaking through. We see their inner selves, and their inner selves are infinitely graceful, almost divine beings. And that’s awesome.

Babette’s Feast is based on a short story by Karen Blixen, a Danish author who wrote under the penname of Isak Dinesen. The Blu-ray features a documentary film, several essays, and even an odd 37-minute “visual essay” by filmmaker Michael Almareyda , explaining the the life of the outspoken author, and her varied career. Evidently, the transition of Babette’s Feast from the page to the big screen was a long and harrowing one, which attracted no less a personality than Orson Welles into its orbit. Yes, Welles once considered proposing marriage to the woman, sight unseen. Criterion once again assembles the best special features, as all of these ancillary works on Blixen add an epic texture to the quiet simplicity of the film. Blu-ray features ought to enhance a film, not merely promote it.

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List