A modest yet elegantly constructed period drama, Babette’s Feast is a curiously middlebrow choice for a BFI rerelease. Winner of the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this is just about as genteel as Oscar recipients come. Adapted by director Gabriel Axel from an Isak Dinesen short story, the narrative drifts innocuously along, but is ultimately creditable due to the poignancy and compassion at its core. Its optimistic view of the human condition, as well as its infectiously joyous celebration of culinary creativity, make it a winning, albeit slight, crowd-pleaser.
Set in provincial 19th Century Denmark, Babette’s Feast concerns two sisters who live in an isolated village with their father (Pouel Kern), a well-respected pastor. Though both girls are presented with opportunities to leave to pursue more fulfilled lives elsewhere, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) with a young army officer and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) with an opera singer, filial and religious responsibilities compel them to stay and benevolently devote themselves to their father, the church and the local community.
Decades later, with the sisters now both elderly, a woman from France called Babette (Stephane Audran) shows up at their door, begging them to employ her as a housekeeper. When she later experiences some unexpected good fortune, Babette decides to prepare an opulent meal for the sisters and their friends to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth. Though its vision of the rural community cursorily recalls the kind of puritanical repressiveness confronted in the films of Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer, the characters of Babette’s Feast are worlds apart from the work of the legendary Danish auteur.
The oppression of religion is dealt with in a more delicate, comfortable way, but it is still relatively convincing. The first section of the film, looking at the men the sisters could have married, is steeped in wistful regret. It is a shame that the intrusive narration is overused in this sequence, with Axel’s desire to tell the story rather than show it detracting from scenes that could have otherwise been quietly moving.
Babette’s titular feast is an undoubted highlight. The scene constantly switches from the kitchen to the table, from creation to consumption, with rapturous aplomb. The central tension of the film, that between the pastoral austerity of the Danish countryside and the more metropolitan adventurousness of Paris, is deftly handled in this scene through well-orchestrated comic moments and judicious use of silences. While the sheer pleasantness of Babette’s Feast inevitably means it never carries the dramatic weight it should, it remains a warm and open-hearted piece.