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Babettes gæstebud (Babette's Feast)

MGM Home Video

Starring Stephane Audran

Written and directed by Gabriel Axel

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Whenever a filmmaker offers a movie with food at the center of it, it's usually as a metaphor. The whole concept of appetite — and of savoring the hedonistic pleasures of the flesh — is simply too rich (and too easily grasped) a symbolism for a screenwriter to ignore.

And whenever we are presented with one of these films, be it Like Water for Chocolate, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Big Night, or Lasse Hallstrom's marvelous Chocolat, reviewers inevitably haul out comparisons to the mother of all food flicks, Babette's Feast, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1987.

Gabriel Axel's film is styled with an obvious nod to Ingmar Bergman, both in his ponderously gray visual representation of the dank Danish coast and in the slow, quiet pacing of his tale. Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (of Out of Africa fame) that originally appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1950, Babette's Feast is a parable about the importance of both spiritual and secular values.

Set in a village on the wild, rugged coast of Jutland in the 19th century, it could just as easily be the 17th. The people are kind but puritanical; they live in simple, modest cottages; their favorite recreation is singing devotional songs. By the time we get to the meat of the story, there are almost no young people left in the village. Go figure.

The first half of the film reveals the details of the past: Philippa and Martina (Bodil Kjer, Brigitte Federspiel), are the good-hearted, beautiful daughters of the village's revered minister. Each sister is wooed by an outsider — the first by a soldier, taken by her beauty; the second by an Parisian opera singer, taken by her exquisite voice. But they reject their suitors, opting instead for lives of duty and charity, serving their father's flock in their tiny town.

Many years later, a Frenchwoman named Babette (Stephane Audran) arrives on the aging sister's doorstep, sent to them by the opera singer. Babette is fleeing Paris, where her husband and son have been killed during the French uprising of 1871. She offers to work for them as a cook, and for fourteen years quietly tends to the sister's needs, cooking simply awful daily meals of reconstituted dried fish and a gruel made from bread and ale. Then, one day, she receives a letter from France. Babette has won 10,000 francs in the lottery, and asks for the sister's permission to cook a "real French dinner" to honor their deceased father's 100th birthday. They reluctantly agree.

When they see the ingredients start to arrive — quails, a huge turtle, a calf's head, and many bottles of wine — Martine and Filippa are struck with terror that the meal is a virtual "witches' Sabbath" and fearfully alert the rest of the disciples to the presence of evil in their midst. All agree that they will attend the dinner with their minds on higher things, as if they had no sense of taste — they will say nothing at all about the food or drink. Of course, everything changes once they start eating Babette's food.

For anyone who has recently seen the 2000 film Chocolat, this will all be familiar territory. But while Hallstrom's film parodies religious piety, portraying the self-righteous townfolk as ignorant, intolerant and mean-spirited (although chocolate naturally fixes all that), Axel's/Dinesen's parochial Danish folk are good-hearted people who have lost something vital through their rejection of all but their devotion to God. We see that the disciples' moral uprightness has become small-minded pettiness as they bicker amongst themselves. Their close community has become so insular as to have even ended procreation — practically everyone in town is elderly. In the context of the film, the two suitors represent something young, vital and alive offered by the secular world, and they, too, see elements of the spiritual that they wish to embrace. But they are rebuffed, and go on to lives in which they realize that something important is missing, suggesting that when the secular and the sacred are estranged, neither achieves fullness.

Enter Babette, who fulfills the role of symbolic Christ-figure, teaching through example. First, her sacrifice: she spends all of her lottery money on the feast, meaning she will now have to spend the rest of her days in this desolate village. What she creates is a Last Supper, and when the soldier-suitor — now a general — arrives there are twelve at the table (with Babette in the kitchen preparing the food, they are thirteen).

Food is one of the great Christian symbols, and Babette's feast brings the disgruntled villagers together to literally break bread and drink wine, which "turns them from enemies into friends." As they eat and drink, color comes to their cheeks for the first time. A husband and wife, guilty for years over their youthful betrayal of her former husband, kiss one another in reconciled love. Wine flows freely and food overwhelms in its abundance. And the general offers: "We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness, we imagine divine grace to be finite. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude." When the guests finally leave the table they are created anew, spontaneously dancing in the moonlit village square in the wake of the realization that if God has graced us with the ability to enjoy earthly delights, then the gratification of our earthly senses is holy, too.

MGM's DVD edition of Babette's Feast is presented in its theatrical release format of 1.66:1 with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio in Danish, French and Spanish, and Dolby 2.0 mono in English. The color is fine, considering that the film is washed-out by deliberate design, and there is little noticeable artifacting. The sound is fine, if unexceptional. The American theatrical trailer is included.

— Dawn Taylor

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