Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987 and was the first Danish production to ever take the prestigious award. It started a hot streak of sorts, when the following year Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror pretty much ran the table, claiming the Oscar, the Palme d’Or and the Golden Globe, further confirming to the world that the Danish film industry had arrived. While the Danes would not win another Oscar until 2010, for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, this tiny nation of just under six million souls has become a capital of cinematic creativity, boasting such talented filmmakers as Lars van Trier, Per Fly, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nicolas Winding Refn, to name a few. If the grand moralist dirges of Carl Th. Dreyer define Danish cinema of the WWII generation, then Babette’s Feast must be considered the nation’s inspirational exemplar for baby boomers and beyond.
Directed by Gabriel Axel and based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast has the feel of an austere fairy tale for adults. Set in a remote village of thatched huts on the windswept Danish coast in the 19th Century, the story tracks the lives of two sisters: Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) who have devoted themselves to performing good works for the less fortunate of their tiny community. Their father, a charismatic minister (Pouel Kern), built and in many ways ruled the hamlet with strict Calvinist sermons that forbade any experience of sensual pleasures. Out of devotion to their father, the sisters dismissed suitors and career opportunities alike, choosing to live out their days in spartan self-sacrifice, delivering bowls of bland soup to the elderly and infirm.
One stormy day, a visitor shows up at Filippa and Martine’s doorstep; a mysterious 35-ish woman in flight from France’s civil war. Her name is Babette and she bears a letter of introduction from a mutual Parisian acquaintance. The sisters, now elderly themselves and their beloved father long dead, take in the grateful Babette who in exchange devotes herself to their modest cottage’s menial chores. As the years pass, Babette becomes a valued and respected member of the community. When she receives a sudden financial windfall, Babette finally has a chance to repay the villagers for their unrelenting love and kindness. She decides to treat the ascetics to a special dinner; a meal so refined and sumptuous it will not only reveal her origins, it will leave the diners questioning their life-long denial of mortal pleasures.
Like all good fairy tales, Babette’s Feast has a moral. Actually it has several morals, some obvious, some buried in subtext. It’s an example of film as palimpsest; charming and engaging on its rustic surface, but laden with deep veins of meaning and nuggets of existential truth for those willing to unearth them. Along its symbolic, candlelit arc, several facets of the human condition are wistfully addressed, from gnawing regret over past decisions to the true nature of Christianity to the ever-changing definition of spirituality as defined by good works. By the final act, the artist’s place in society becomes a central theme and despite its gray skies and cold, biting winds, Babette’s Feast offers a most sunny and optimistic assessment of that uneasy coexistence. It also presciently hints that future divides between artists and audiences – and between deity and worshiper – will be spanned by bridges built of gentleness and respect.
The disc retains the gray, murky moods of the original without the excessive enhancement that distinguishes – or plagues – so many recent blu-rays. Babette’s Feast is a story set in ocean mist and thick walled window-lit interiors perfectly captured by cinematographer Henning Kristiansen, who clearly drew inspiration from classic Flemish painters. Sourced from the original camera negative, the 1.66:1 transfer is meticulously clean and has a welcome lack of grain. The food preparation scenes have a lighting scheme motivated by a flickering wood stove and the shot-to-shot consistency is impressive.
Likewise, the 2.0 surround track was mastered from original elements, rendering the film’s hushed whispers and pounding winds with effective levels and clarity. The film’s thoughtful pauses and meditative moods are free from noisy distractions.
New interviews with director Gabriel Axel and actor Stéphane Audran Axel, a mere 94 years young at the time of the interview, shows the passionate giddiness of a schoolboy when when discussing Babette’s Feast. He describes in detail his analysis of the film as a story of love and the friendly competition he had with Chabrol in winning the directorial assignment. 8 min. Audran’s interview is called Through Babette’s Eyes and touches on many aspects of the production. Audran recalls her efforts to learn Danish phonetically and a number of creative changes she suggested for the script. She lavishes director Axel with praise, saying his vision and blocking made acting “as natural and easy as breathing.” 25 min.
Karen Blixen—Storyteller, a 1995 documentary about the author of the film’s source story, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen Produced for Danish TV, this program deals mainly with Blixen’s life after her return to Denmark from Africa in 1931. We learn much about her unique persona, including her chronic struggles with spinal syphilis which she contracted from her unfaithful husband in Kenya. Through archival film interviews she granted over the years and contemporary commentary from friends and colleagues, a rich portrait is painted his this singular talent, including her friendships with Chaplin and Hemingway. While little here is specific to Babette’s Feast, fans of Blixen’s work will find this 90 minute supplement enthralling.
New visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda Entitled Table Scraps, Almereyda’s essay is Illustrated by film stills and narrated by actress Lori Singer. The film’s religious aspects are discussed, with an emphasis on universal themes of spirituality. The lives of Blixen and Babette shared several parallels and the piece carefully examines them. Almereyda goes into great, at times amusing, detail on the admiration – you could call it a school boy crush – that Orson Welles felt for Blixen in the 1950s. As a postscript. the essay features a lengthy conversation with photographer Peter Beard, who took the last known pictures of Blixen in 1961. After initial trepidation, Beard got to know her well during the sessions, which were conducted shortly before her death. 25 min.
New interview with sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson about the significance of cuisine in French culture A must for foodies, this 17 minute segment deals mainly with the history of French cooking, focusing on the career of Marie-Antoine Carême. In the early 1800s, Carême became the world’s first celebrity chef and is considered by many the father of modern French cuisine. Ferguson also discusses specific dishes prepared by Babette and their historical backgrounds.
Trailer In this unrestored teaser, films stills are accompanied by glowing endorsements from a number of prominent critics. It’s a bit nostalgic to see the animated logo of now defunct Orion Classics; it adorned many of the biggest art-house hits of the 1980s.
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu and Dinesen’s 1950 story This 64 page publication has credits, film stills and notes on the transfer. Le Fanu’s essay covers a lot of ground succinctly, dealing with the film’s international aspects, its allusions to modern concepts of Christianity and the surreal qualities of Babette’s gourmet dinner to name a few. As an unexpected bonus, Dinesen’s original short story, which first appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal magazine in 1950, is reprinted in its entirety.
Among the many riches of Babette’s Feast is a rare and clever parallel drawn between altruism and artistry. According to Dinesen and Axel, the joy bestowed upon the doer of good works stems from the same emotional needs that propel artists to ever higher levels of creativity and craft. Therein lies the secret to the success of Babette’s Feast. Despite the religious trappings, despite the self-denial and dour atmospherics, the film serves up a memorable celebration of all that is good about humanity.