Any movie with the word “feast” in the title, prepares its audience for something special. No matter what happens throughout the course of the film, the one certainty- the one thing you can absolutely count on, is that by the end of the film you will be hungry. Based on the story written by acclaim author Karen von Blixen-Finecke, who often wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast” (1987) is a delightfully pleasant story that transports its audience to another place and time, thanks to the marvelous adaptation by the film’s director, Gabriel Axel.
The story originates is a small town on the coast of Denmark. Two elderly sisters (Bodi Kjer & Birgitte Federspiel) earn a small living as soup makers, but their real reason for living is to carry on their late father’s religious message. Somewhat unusual for their life style, the have a French housekeeper and cook named Babette (Stephane Audran). The story begins by explaining (in great length mind you) how Babette came to live with them.
Traveling back almost 50 years, we learn that the father (Pouel Kern), a pious man who had formed his own sect, considered his daughters to be his own hands, and therefore taught (or trained) them to remain with him, forever focused on their Godly cause. His two daughters had many suitors over the years, including a Swedish officer (Jarl Kulle) and a baritone opera star (Jean-Philippe Lafont), both of whom left when they realized their love would never be a match for the girls’ father and his mission.
Jumping forward about 35 years, we see the two sisters still living quietly, with only each other and their departed father’s deteriorating congregation. Enter Babette, who comes knocking on their door with a letter from the opera singer, asking for the sisters to give Babette a place to stay, as civil war in France has taken the lives of her husband and son and forced her to flee.
Although they cannot afford to pay Babette, they allow her to live and work with them, making ale and bread soup. After living together for 14 years, Babette receives a letter from France informing her that she has won the lottery. As the sisters have been planning a dinner in celebration of what would have been their beloved father’s 100th birthday, Babette asks that she be allowed to cook a genuine French meal for them and their remaining congregation, but the guests’ expectations are soon surpassed as Babette has a few surprises for them.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Babette’s Feast” is the way we are transported into another world. Through the use of amazing set design, costumes, and location shooting, you can feel the coldness in the air and the bleakness in these characters’ lives. For a moment towards the end, you can even taste the succulence of the food and drink that everyone is so silently enjoying. The beauty is in the details- and none were left to chance.
“Babette’s Feast” is a simply story and idea. It isn’t overly complex or held down by too much pain or misery. The film is a masterful combination of comedy and drama. By that, I mean that even though there is sadness to the story, that is not the focus. In much the same way there is comedy throughout (especially during the dinner), but nothing that will have you laughing loudly. It is a quiet movie that evokes powerful emotions on a small scale. The most surprising part of this film is the way that the heart-warming tale creeps up unexpectedly. Gabriel Axel has craftily surprised his viewers much in the same way Babette has surprised her guests.
It can be hard to discuss “Babette’s Feast”, but not because the plot is complex or because there is anything to difficult to understand. It’s because this is a film that needs to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated.