Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Stephane Audran, Bodil
Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Phillipe Lafont
Director: Gabriel Axel
Audio: PCM 2.0 Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: July 23, 2013
“Vanity, vanity...all is vanity.”
Babette's Feast plays like a modest version of a tall tale, if there is such a thing. It's simple and effectively disarming in its sly charm. Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film of 1987.
It tells the tales of two sisters (Kjer and Federspiel). They are not elderly, but getting there. They are in charge of continuing their late father's ministry, and spend their days trying to spread the Good Word and doing deeds of kindness for those around them. They also have a French maid named Babette (Audran). How do two women of such meager means manage to employ a maid? Well...
In flashbacks, we see the story of the sisters as beautiful young women. They serve their father with joy and have no interest in suitors. One of the sisters is wooed by a military man (Kulle) to no avail, while a vacationing French singing star (Lafont) sets sights on the other, offering to give her voice lessons, but imagining a future where she is not only his stage partner but love partner. It was not to be for either man.
Years later, during the bloody atrocity of the French Revolution, the sisters hear from the singer, who asks as a favor that they take in his friend Babette so that she might be spared from the rampant horrors. Babette is a good cook, he says. Bewildered, but not one to turn away someone in need, they agree to welcome her in.
Babette tries to stoically prepare the sisters' bland meals that they and their fellow worshippers eat. But since the death of their father, the little church has fallen into tough times. They have very few members left, and those that are would rather bicker and quarrel over petty things.
Babette maintains no ties to her homeland save for an annual lottery ticket, and as fate would have it, she wins. 10,000 francs means a chance to go home. But she requests one last favor of the sisters: their father's 100th birthday is approaching, and she would like to prepare a proper French feast for them and their parishioners.
They are shocked and afraid of the decadent food and drink, but agree out of politeness to take part. They will ask for forgiveness later, and will not speak a word about the food during the dinner. But also joining them is the former military suitor, who provides a warm commentary as the only person with a clue of how sumptuous the banquet is.
Course after course of the most amazing food is brought out, accompanied by amazing wines and champagnes. The dinner guests attempt to remain stoic, but you can see how the food and drink are warming hearts and breaking down their bridges once more.
At the conclusion, Babette confesses she will not be returning to France...she is penniless again. All her winnings were spent on the feast. Why? I am so wanting to go further, but you must find out for yourself what Babette's real motivations were.
This is the kind of movie that is impossible to watch without a smile on your face. Director Gabriel Axel took this short story, thought to be unfilmable, and made a little bit of magic. Thankfully, he re-shaped the ending somewhat, as Dinesen's story had a slightly more cynical and sober outcome.
Babette's Feast is a delicious slice of life...one guaranteed to please nearly everyone.
This is a beautiful high definition transfer from Criterion...though the 80s are often a troubling time for visual quality, this 2K digital film restoration effort is quite superb. Only one or two minor shots show some noticeable grain and artifacting, but overall, the experience is wonderful.
There are few demands on this surround track, as almost all of the film is simple spoken words (with a scene or two of singing). The uncompressed audio is entirely serviceable.
There are a pair of newly recorded interviews with director Gabriel Axel and star Stephane Audran, along with a terrific visual essay on the movie by Michael Almereyda and narrated by Lori Singer. There is a documentary about Isak Dinesen, and even a look about the significance of cuisine in French culture.
Rounding out is a trailer and a terrific booklet including Dinesen's original short story.
If you love film, if you love food, pull up a chair and savor Babette's Feast. Criterion scores again with a terrific rendering of this modern Danish banquet.