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"An artist is never poor."
Viewers convinced that movies are incapable of presenting positive spiritual values are urged to give the 1987 Danish film Babette's Feast a spin. A tale of ideas and commitments rare in any time, it was adapted from a short story by author Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen. Her full name is Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke. Most Americans have heard of Blixen's Out of Africa, the Sydney Pollack movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. As that show's Denmark-set scenes were so negative one might think Blixen had nothing good to say about her Nordic homeland, but Babette's Feast comes as a very pleasant surprise. A quietly enchanting tale set in the mid- 1800s, it steadfastly refuses to adopt a modern style. Its pace is the pace of a provincial seaside town where nothing much ever happens. Yet the sweetness and warmth generated in this austere setting is very special and very rewarding. I've recommended Babette's Feast often to friends that haven't much patience with movies. For at least two of them, it's become their favorite film.
Criterion's Blu-ray examines the making of the film, but also contains very special extras on the highly unusual life and career of the fascinating Karen Blixen.
A tiny hamlet in Jutland is pretty, but somewhat isolated from the world. Elderly sisters Philipa and Martine (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel) are the center of a Bible group that reveres the teachings of their late father, a minister beloved throughout Denmark despite his poverty. Years before, the sisters turned away suitors that would have taken them from home -- one, a handsome soldier; the other, a famous opera baritone, Achille Papin (Jean-Phillipe Lafont). Now the father is dead and the sisters carry on his work. The baritone sends them a French woman, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran) whose entire family has been killed in the street rioting and chaos of the Paris Commune. Babette serves the sisters 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, all assume that she will depart forthwith. She instead insists on preparing a celebratory dinner for the 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. Complicating matters, the handsome soldier from years ago, now a retired general, becomes one of the invitees.
I'll admit it -- the first time out Savant had to be dragged to Babette's Feast, only to find it one of the best movies of the 1980s. This has to be the most romantic film about celibate asceticism ever made. It has the daring to state the value in a lifestyle that few of us would consider, and that may no longer be possible anyway. The elongated flashback showing the young sisters each turning down a dream beau, is painful because we think the story must inevitably become a tragedy. It most assuredly does not.
The show instead proposes the existence of a tiny little spiritual-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 is stubborn and fickle, but better people 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 a place where people eat grim boiled fish and bread-mush soaked in ale. A sort of miracle occurs at the dining table. 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. It is both regretful and accepting of the decisions one must make and then live with. It's fitting that the dinner guests should go home under a starry sky, pausing like children to join hands around the well. Babette's creations have inspired happiness and harmony.
When people eat in movies we often see them sit, be served and pretend to take a couple of bites. Suddenly the plates are empty. Babette's Feast makes high cuisine and the act of eating together seem like an alternate route to heaven. The multiple courses of pure joy bring a bit of earthly delight to a group of people that have never experienced decadent luxuries. They react to her cooking as if it is some unknown earthly miracle that has passed them by.
Director Axel concentrates on the preparations in footage that may be the most attractive cooking scenes ever filmed. Babette has only a couple of crude surfaces and a wood stove to work with, but she puts it all together in an expression of pure creativity. Her guests will surely not forget her any day soon.
Stéphane Audran is very good as the servant who surprises everyone with her very non-ascetic talent. In the rather cryptic ending, Babette refuses to become emotional with the sisters, and offers the slightly mysterious thought that she created the feast not for them, but for herself. Ingmar Bergman star 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.
They're prim, sincere, and heartfelt: gracious but not given to emotional extremes. Each of their younger counterparts in the flashback scenes is an unusually fine physical match. The resemblance really helps to convey one of the messages 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. Viewers familiar with Carl Dreyer movies may have a special reason to love this show: Birgette Federspiel has a key scene in Dreyer's 1955 Ordet. That profoundly spiritual film is so heart-wrenching that watching Ms. Federspiel alive and vital in Babette's Feast is a sheer joy in itself.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Babette's Feast totally eclipses MGM's flat-matted DVD from way back in 2001. The full HD widescreen transfer here is truly beautiful. The contrast reaches into the dark corners of these little Danish cottages with their thatched roofs. Facial flesh tones are pink and fresh -- these Danes don't wear makeup! A shot of a seagull over the surf gives the water that pearlescent green look.
The sound is also very clear and detailed. We see Babette forced to take on a new, less refined manner of speech while learning Danish with the sisters and the grocer. The English subtitles are very helpful in conveying this.
Criterion continues to devote impressive energy and resources to its extras. Both director Gabriel Axel and Stéphane Audran are present in new interviews. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda contributes a visual essay, where we learn 1,001 new things about Babette's Feast. In addition to Ms. Federspiel, other actors and actresses from Carl Dreyer films appear, including Lisbeth Movin, the young suspected witch from Day of Wrath. We learn that in addition to a full career doing play adaptations and family films, director Axel made soft-core sex comedies. Another new interview with sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst addresses the (quote) significance of cuisine in French culture. It's not as gourmet-centric as it sounds. A trailer is included as well.
A very welcome extra is a long-form 1995 documentary Karen Blixen -- Storyteller, which turns out to be very detailed and well appointed with film clips, stills and other documentation. Blixen is a fascinating personality and somewhat provocative: at one point she encouraged two of her married student-acolytes to take mistresses, on the basis that marriage inhibits creativity.
The 64-page insert book contains an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu, and the Isak Dinesen's original 1950 story, first published in the Ladies' Home Journal. Like her other writing, it was first written in English and translated for Danish readers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Babette's Feast Blu-ray rates:
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