As winner of the 1988 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Babette’s Feast has everything that world film has to offer, from its quirky, almost surreal, atmosphere to its heart-warming characters and uplifting spirit. Twenty-five years on from its release, Gabriel Axel’s film is still as delicious as ever.
Adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen, the pseudonym for Karen Blixen (better known for her memoir Out of Africa), Babette’s Feast tells the story of two sisters, Martine and Filippa. As daughters of their remote town’s religious leader, the two spend their time distributing food and charity to their neighbors, keeping very little for themselves. Despite this, they still have a maid named Babette and, through flashbacks, it is revealed how this arrangement came about. Fourteen years later and following a sudden lottery win, Babette decides to treat the sisters, and their quarrelsome neighbors, to a feast the likes of which they have never seen, in honor of their late father.
So, essentially, the film is about the relationship between two aging sisters and their maid. Now, whilst this may not seem like the recipe for a great work, the film’s strength is in incorporating all manner of themes into this basis premise. Each character has lost something that they once valued so highly; in the sisters’ case, they have lost their youth, their chances for happiness and, most painfully, the father that they both loved so much. Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel wonderfully bring all the melancholy and loss that their characters have experienced to the surface.
However, it is Babette’s story that most intrigues, as a mysterious and talented figure amidst the blustery atmosphere of the small village. Stephane Audran plays Babette with an authority and presence that more than fulfills the role of a woman who, too, has lost the life that she once treasured. The relationship that builds between her and the sisters is restrained but lovingly built to represent the truest bond that any of the characters have known.
It is Gabriel Axel’s direction that makes the film the masterpiece that it is. Each scene is built with great care and elegance to imbue the film with an enriching stillness and an almost magical, surreal atmosphere. Warm natural tones accompany sweeping rural vistas to further isolate the setting, giving it an almost unworldly quality. Even small touches, like the local shopkeeper merely putting on a hat to become the town’s postman, are given the time to flesh out the communal setting, and as the film continues and the titular meal begins, the camera moves ever closer to express the joy of the film’s climax.
Subtle, clean and truly nourishing, Babette’s Feast is still one of the finest examples of what world cinema has to offer. Featuring heart-warming performances, wonderful direction, and a sad blissfulness that no doubt everyone well share, the film has all the ingredients of a classic.