Obituary: Director who won an Oscar for ‘Babette’s Feast’

Gabriel Axel


In April 1988 the film director Gabriel Axel, who has died aged 95, walked up on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles to receive the best foreign language film Oscar for Babette’s Feast (1987), the first Danish film to achieve that honour.

In a mixture of Danish and French, the slim, grey-bearded Axel quoted a line from the character of the general in the film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

It was the pinnacle of Axel’s long career and marked the beginning of a resurgence of Danish cinema. The film, a superb adaptation of the 1950 short story written by Karen Blixen (under her nom de plume of Isak Dinesen), remains true to its literary source with no loss to cinematic quality.

Bleak and austere

With the help of Henning Kristiansen’s atmospheric cinematography, Axel captures the bleak Jutland peninsula of the 1870s, where live two unmarried sisters, daughters of the former pastor and founder of an austere religious sect, who devote themselves to keeping alive his memory in the remote community.

Subtle changes occur when Babette (Stéphane Audran), a French woman, who has fled the war-torn Paris of 1871, turns up on their doorstep seeking refuge and becomes their cook-housekeeper.

Fourteen years elapse before it is revealed that Babette is a cordon bleu cook – a fact that leads to her cooking the sisters and their guests a sumptuous once-in-a-lifetime meal, a cathartic event for her, her employers and the community, leaving the diners questioning their lives of self-denial.

Axel was born in Aarhus, Denmark, but spent most of his childhood in France. He trained as an actor in Copenhagen and Paris, and worked both as actor and director on Danish television, later branching into feature films, mostly family comedies, for the Scandinavian market. He also directed the softest of soft porn movies, with titles such as The Girls Are Willing , Crazy Paradise and Paradise and Back .

He was never able to repeat the artistic perfection of Babette’s Feast , but there was some consolation in his latter years when he received a lifetime achievement award at the Copenhagen international film festival in 2003. He is survived by his daughter, Karin.

Born: April 18th, 1918

Died: February 9th, 2014