Directed By: Gabriel Axel
Written By: Gabriel Axel, Karen Blixen
Produced By: Just Betzer, Bo Christensen
Cast: Stephane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer
MPAA Rating: G
Runtime: 102 minutes
Review Date: October 15, 2010
The human spirit, while unbreakable, is endlessly pliable. Though often we may remain obstinate on the surface and stay true to our mind’s narrow focus, our hearts often paint in much broader strokes. The film Babette’s Feast examines this concept, shedding light on the enigma that is pious asceticism and how this way of life can alter when faced with the reality that life is very different outside one’s own manifested shells. When the characters in this film are faced with an extravagantly lavish feast, they are reminded of what is truly important in the world: acceptance.
The film begins with a series of flashbacks which effectively set the quietly sublime pace of the film. Two young gorgeous girls are the envy of two proper, prestigious men (one a soldier in a nearby garrison, the other a reputable French singer). These men however, no matter how quaint or grand their efforts, are unable to get through to the girls. These girls are the spawn of a devout, stoically committed pastor who has ascribed to an adamantly conservative way of living. Their unconditional love to their father, who describes his daughters as his “Right and Left hands,” discourages them from acting on any impulse and refuse to relinquish their duties to the church. Both men leave empty handed with hollow hearts, conveying the impossibility of the girls’ lifestyles. Their saddened eyes are met with the same look, but also with a steely acknowledgment that their family and lifestyle trump all else.
Flash-forward to 1871 and the sisters still live in the same town. They have chosen to remain united, living together under a thatched roof where they spend their days tending to the poor and upholding their fathers ideals. Enter Babette (Stephane Audran), a curiously attractive French woman with no money and no family (her husband and son died in the French commune). She begs to be taken in, willing to work for no salary. The sisters Phiillipa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) happily oblige, and are soon to train Babette of their stringent yet calm lifestyle. These scenes are great, as they offer keen insight into Babette’s transition into a new life. Additionally, these scenes allow director Gabriel Axel to deftly handle his immaculate cast, organically playing off one another as if no camera or crew were ever present.
15 years pass, and Babette wins the lottery. Phillipa and Martine naturally expect her departure, but Babette promises a final meal in honor of their late father. They reluctantly oblige, fearing that Babette’s French meal will be sinfully decadent and that the disciples they commune with will disapprove. Let’s get this straight. The meal she prepares is sinfully delicious, and should easily stand as the benchmark for movie feasts.
I cannot divulge more about the third act, as it kept me laughing and smiling throughout and won’t ruin it for you. Here is what i will say about the film overall: It romanticizes food in ways that many films have often imitated, but never emulated. It creates a believable, sensuous romance without any bodily contact. And finally, it unifies a group of estranged, worn-out people over sharp dialogue, meaningful epithets, and fine wine. Though the film spends most of its time examining a group of people resistant to change, it’s all the same an allegory for how important food is for the human soul. This is a movie that will touch your heart, mind, soul, and stomach in equal measures. Now excuse me while I go raid my fridge.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.