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Savant Short Review:


Babette's Feast
MGM Home Entertainment
1987 / Color / 1:37 / original title, Babettes gaestebud
Starring Stéphane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Bibi Andersson, Jarle Kulle, Jean-Phillipe LaFont, Ebbie Rode
Cinematography Henning Kristiansen
Production Designers Jan Petersen, Sven Wichmann
Film Editor Finn Henriksen
Original Music Per Norgaard
Writing credits Gabriel Axel, from the novel by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
Produced by Just Betzer and Bo Christensen
Directed by Gabriel Axel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

MGM's "World Cinema" VHS 'branded line' category jumps to DVD with this handsome release, one of many excellent foreign films that company will be offering up to disc in the coming months.  Judging from the Danish sequences in Out of Africa, you'd think Karen Blixen had nothing positive to say about her nordic homeland, so Babette's Feast comes as a very pleasant surprise.  A charming tale set in the mid 1800's, it steadfastly refuses to be modern in any way.  Its pace is the pace of a provincial seaside town where nothing much ever happens, and its subject is the lives of characters who have dedicated themselves to very non-21st century lifestyles.  The sweetness and humanity brought out from this austere setting make Babette's Feast a special and rewarding foreign film.


A tiny hamlet in Jutland. Elderly sisters Phillipa and Martina (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel) are the center of a bible group that still reveres the teachings of their late father, a devout and loving minister known throughout Denmark despite his poverty.  Their dedication to him included turning down suitors in their youth who would have taken them away - one, a handsome soldier;  the other, a famous opera baritone, Achille Papin (Jean-Phillipe Lafont).  Many years later, the father is dead but the sisters carry on his work.  The baritone sends them a French woman, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran) whose entire family has been killed in street rioting in Paris.  She serves them for free for fifteen years, enabling them to better take care of the elderly and infirm.  When Babette wins a small fortune in a lottery, the sisters think they are going to lose her,  but instead their servant insists on preparing a celebratory dinner for their father's birthday.  The elaborate meal would be an extravagance in a four star Paris restaurant.  Ascetic and god-fearing, the sisters and their flock of now-aged villagers are apprehensive about the decadence of it all ... and then the handsome soldier from years ago, now a retired general, becomes one of the invitees ...

Savant had to be dragged to Babette's Feast the first time out, only to find it positively enchanting.  This has to be the most romantic movie about celibate asceticism ever made, actually daring to state the value in a lifestyle that few of us consider, and that may no longer be possible anyway.  The elongated flashback showing the young sisters each turning down dream beaus, is painful because we think the story must inevitably become a tragedy, which it does not.

In a way, the movie spiritually proposes a tiny little utopian oasis on the Danish peninsula.  The sisters are kind to the refugee frenchwoman Babette, and Babette is generous in return.  The little group of bible-readers are a stubborn and fickle lot, but better for their faith and understanding.  As the centenary of 'the minister's' birthday approaches, the sisters fear that their group is falling apart with petty bickering.  Never explaining herself to her pragmatic, inflexible employers,  Babette brings the awesome power of French cooking to this place where people eat grim boiled fish and bread-mush soaked in ale.  Her creations inspire happiness and harmony.  One old lady discovers the joy of fine wine, and another gives her husband a warm kiss, as if the years had melted away.  The old soldier delivers a stirring love speech that compensates for a lifetime spent apart,  regretful but accepting of fate and the decisions one makes that one must live with.  It's fitting that the dinner guests should go home under a starry sky and join hands around the well like children.

Stéphane Audran is very good as the servant who surprises everyone.  Bibi Andersson makes the cast billing but is only seen for a few moments as a lady-in waiting at a distant court.  Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel as the sisters are delightful:  prim, sincere, and heartfelt.  Their younger counterparts in the flashback scenes are an unusually fine physical match.  As in, nigh perfect.  It really helps the feeling of the movie that time ages people but does not transform them.  When the old general (Jarl Kulle) remembers his younger self (Gudmar Wivesson), lamenting his own vanity, we see them both together, and the effect is very interesting.

MGM's DVD of Babette's Feast is a huge improvement over Orion's old vhs release.  The image is colorful and stable.  The film is matted flat instead of being 16:9 enhanced.  It comes with removeable English subtitles, in case you speak Danish and French.  A generous number of languages are provided:  dubbed English, French and Spanish; and the original Danish and French mix.  Since a charming part of the story has Babette interacting with the villagers' Danish (it's fun watching her learn Danish with the grocer), the other language tracks are to be avoided, unless you can't read subtitles at all.  There are also subs in French & Spanish.  Probably because of the prodigious number of releases this year, MGM has skipped their publicity-oriented 'collectible booklets,' and provided a simple sheet with cast and credits (and their ubiquitous misleading "widescreen / standard" graphic).  The booklet isn't missed.  The only extra is a trailer. The movie itself is very well-presented, and that's always enough.  Savant's saving this one for a surprise when the folks come over.  They naturally think I only watch horror films.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Babette's Feast rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: February 8, 2001

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