Babette’s Feast/Babettes Gæstebud
Directed by Gabriel Axel. Starring Stephane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Bibi Andersson, Jarl Kulle Club, IFI, Dublin, 103 min
On its release in 1987, Gabriel Axel’s adaptation of a little-known Isak Dinesen story became the film you needed to have seen when arriving at fashionable dinner parties. You can just about see why. Babette’s Feast remains one of the more luscious-looking food pictures. It’s also too empty, too polite and too in love with high-fat indulgence.
Translating Dinesen’s story from a Norwegian town to a remote Danish hamlet, Axel introduces us to Babette (Stephane Audran), a maid exiled after falling foul of the Paris communes. She secures a position with a Lutheran family and, for some years, commits herself to cooking their Spartan, unflashy meals. Then Babette wins the lottery. Surprising everyone, she decides to prepare a magnificent feast for her employers.
Emerging two years after a much soggier Dinesen adaptation (Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa), Babette’s Feast was more than a little over-praised on release. That great curmudgeon Jonathan Rosenbaum grumpily suggested that it didn’t “aim at anything higher than Masterpiece Theatre or a Merchant-Ivory film”. This is a little unfair on Merchant-Ivory (whose defence must wait for a future reissue), but it gets to a truth concerning the empty calories on display.
The storytelling in the opening half is solid, unexciting and conventional. But, to be fair, once preparation for the feast begins, the picture clicks into its own odd gear. Babette exhibits a near religious devotion to the courses and the camera is happy to share in her adoration. Some turtle soup? A little quail in puff pastry? Rum baba with figs? It’s hardly surprising to learn that, for its US release, the distributors persuaded high-end restaurants to prepare the film’s menus.
In an irony that invests the film with some tart undertones, Isek Dinesen – otherwise known as Karen Blixen – eventually died of malnutrition. Try not to think of that when chewing through Axel’s over-rich film.