1 Hr., 44 Mins.
February 4, 2020
abriel Axel’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast (1987) is, to paraphrase Empire’s David Parkinson, an excellent work of gastro-cinema. It’s a lyrical testament, both narratively and visually, to the often transcendental power of cuisine. The movie stars Stéphane Audran, the longtime muse of the French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, as the title character. Babette is a French refugee, who, 14 years before the
film opens, was sent to Denmark — specifically the nanoscopic coastal town of Jutland — to work as a housekeeper for pietistic Protestant sisters Martine and Philippa (Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer). (In her youth, Philippa took voice lessons from Babette’s previous employer, a gregarious, Jean-Philippe Lafont-portrayed Parisian opera star.) Since she started working for the sisters, who have devoted their lives to holding strong their late pastor father’s preachings, Babette has toiled away for free. She’s contented, it seems, spending the bulk of her time cooking as long as she has a place to live.
Most of Babette’s Feast is taken up by flashback — predominantly look-backs into the young-adult lives of the sisters. (The conclusions of the flashbacks are that the siblings were so steadfast in their faith that they ultimately relinquished any chances of romance or a life away from their roots.) More focus is lent to the eponymous character by the middle act. Early on, Babette informs a Jutlander that the only connection she has to her native France is a lottery ticket — and a little into Babette’s Feast, she receives word that she’s the winner. Although the $10,000 could be used to start her life anew — it’s in fact what the sisters expect — Babette, who emphasizes that she has no strong links back home, decides to use all of her earnings to prepare an authentically French, multi-course meal for the siblings and the other members of their shrinking church.
Before the feast, the church’s followers agree not to voice any pleasure during the meal. In addition to thinking it impure to too enthusiastically expound on profane delight, the unusual-to-the-Jutlanders items with which Babette cooks (namely turtle) suggest, to their eye, the possibility of witchcraft. But as Babette’s eaters get deeper into the climactic meal, the harder it becomes to stay true to their agreement. Food, by the end of the film, has proven itself to have the power to heal.
The movie is undoubtedly sated with pleasure. Aside from the stomach-growl-coaxings of the food shots, it's genuinely moving to see these strictly living villagers give themselves over to the sort of non-spiritual gratification they’ve for so long denied themselves. Yet Babette’s Feast never surpasses pleasantry. It has the simplicity of a fable that seems poised to be more profound than it turns out to be. Axel writes and directs stylishly, almost sweetly (the movie is uncynically sensitive and good-natured). But the tenderness he engages imbues in the film a superficiality. These characters do not trump ideas that they’re there to serve a fuzzy-feeling-inducing narrative.
The stoicism of many of them lends itself to a notion that because these people live simply, and do not ask for much, they would prefer to for the most part remain strong and silent. This is particularly true of Babette, who so sacrifices herself and is so otherworldly in her gifts that she seems a divine figure we half-expect to shoot into the sky, like an angel, at the film’s end. Axel doesn’t that meaningfully explore the inner lives of these people. Glimpses into their pasts speak to their experiences but not as much to how those experiences have affected them.
Babette’s Feast won its year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — the first movie in Denmark’s history to meet the accomplishment. The breakthrough is understandable: the feature is indeed aesthetically beautiful and has an infectious poignancy. Its acclaim and surface-level coups don’t mean the same thing as greatness, though: This is a very good movie made with care and intelligence that is evocative of greatness but does not actually engender it. Such isn’t to say that there isn’t greatness at all in Babette’s Feast, because there is: it’s embodied by Audran (who learned her Danish lines phonetically), who provides the part a striking, fleshed-out humanity that can't entirely be written. B-