As light as a Grand Marnier soufflé and as silky as paté de foie gras, 'Babette's Feast' tells a simple tale of sacrifice, perseverance, and transformation with charm, grace, and plenty of joie de vivre. Gabriel Axel's enchanting 1987 adaptation of the Isak Dinesen short story became the first Danish movie ever to win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award (beating out Louis Malle's supremely affecting 'Au Revoir Les Enfants'), a noteworthy victory for a motion picture that celebrates not just the human spirit, but the essential elements that nourish and sustain it - food, drink, and relationships. Laced with sardonic wit, a touch of unrequited romance, and an intoxicating sweetness, this delightful, life-affirming film never fails to warm the cockles of our hearts...and provoke rumbles in our tummies. For beneath all its understated artistry, 'Babette's Feast' also stands as one of cinema's finest foodie films, with the mouthwatering climax a tribute to the art of gastronomy and the closet gourmand lurking inside almost all of us. For God's sake (and your own good), don't watch this movie on an empty stomach!
Of course, anyone familiar with 'Babette's Feast' knows "for God's sake" is also one of the film's underlying themes, propelling the story forward and severely influencing the lives of two of its central characters. Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer) are the daughters of an aged, austere pastor (Pouel Kern), whose steadfast commitment to his faith and its rigid tenets - along with a deep-seeded selfish streak - drives him to dominate the lives of his progeny. With a sly resolve, the pastor keeps his girls on a short leash within the tight confines of the rural seaside village in which they reside, subtly thwarting any chance of happiness with the suitors who pursue them. He so fully indoctrinates his daughters into his ideology, they willingly carry on his work after his death, generously caring for needy villagers and mending any divisiveness among their father's dwindling number of disciples. Now aged themselves, they live quietly and simply with their housekeeper, Babette (Stéphane Audran), a French refugee who fled the revolution of 1871 after her family was tragically killed. Together, the women subsist on bland boiled cod and a thick gruel made from ale and soaked bread. For Babette, it is a wretched existence, but her gratitude to Martine and Filippa for taking her in far outweighs any feelings of self-pity, while the sisters seem happy enough, oblivious to the pleasures eluding them.
That all changes when Babette unexpectedly wins the lottery, and decides to spend her winnings on a special French banquet she herself will prepare. The sisters are initially skeptical - and leery - of such a grandiose indulgence, but Babette bills the dinner as a celebration in honor of their deceased father's 100th birthday. Martine and Filippa acquiesce, and from there, secrets are revealed, eyes, mouths, and hearts are opened, perspectives are widened, and relationships come full circle. Babette proves the power of food (and wine) is palpable indeed, indulgence is a necessary reward, and great art should never be compromised.
Reminiscent of 'Chocolat' in presentation and theme (some might even call Lasse Hallström's film a shameless rip-off), 'Babette's Feast' spins its yarn like a fable, using overdubbed narration to set the stage and move the story along. Both films beautifully depict the transformative powers of fine food and how it not only sustains the body, but also nourishes the soul. Self-restraint may build character and lead us down a righteous path, but too much is unhealthy, even crippling. Indulgence frees us, enriches us, and allows us to fully embrace the gift of life. For these astringent townspeople, the feast is a revelation, even if they don't fully appreciate the exquisite nature of what they obediently and aloofly consume. And for Babette, it is an expression of a long repressed artistry that has kept her as constrained as the women for whom she so selflessly toils.
Axel strikes just the right tone, mixing satire with intimacy, and stingily revealing nuances of character. Though there's a bit too much hymn-singing for my taste (those scenes definitely could be shortened without diluting the story's religious angle), very few missteps disrupt the mood. Audran, like the rudder of a ship, is a steadying presence, and her placid yet cryptic face, akin to Garbo's, divulges few clues. Almost Sphinx-like, she moves throughout the film, obediently following orders, yet her passion and intensity radiate from within, ultimately exploding in an exquisite culinary exhibition.
The food scenes are so lovingly constructed, they incite a Pavlovian response. From stuffed quail en croute to turtle soup and caviar with sour cream and blinis, we can almost smell the rich aromas, taste the complex flavors, and inhale the enticing bouquets of an array of fine wines and liqueurs. It's no wonder a number of high-toned restaurants sought to recreate this sinfully delicious feast after the movie became a hit. If only they would do it again to honor the picture's Blu-ray release...
Though merely a trifle, 'Babette's Feast' has a way of gently wending its way into one's heart. Snuggle up with it on a cool evening with a glass of wine and enjoy its simple pleasures, gourmet cuisine, and resonant messages. As Dinesen writes in her story, "[Babette] appeared to be a beggar; she turned out to be a conqueror." And this movie that bears her name effortlessly conquers and touches its audience, and like the famed Clos Vougeot 1846 wine so famously served and savored in the film, it is a superior and rare vintage.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Babette's Feast' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in an illustrated fold-out case inside a sturdy sleeve. A 64-page booklet printed on glossy paper stock and featuring color scene shots, a cast and crew list, an essay by Mark Le Fanu, and Isak Dinesen's original 1950 short story - which is well worth reading, even if it concentrates more on character and theme than food - sits inside the case, and, like the film, is attractively yet simply designed. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4, and default audio is a Danish language DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track with optional English subtitles. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Depicting the divergent attitudes of austerity and indulgence on film is no easy task, but director Gabriel Axel and his director of photography, Henning Kristiansen, tackle the challenge well, and Criterion's superior 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer honors their efforts with a crisp, clear, yet wonderfully warm rendering of their work. This new transfer, remastered in 2K, was struck from the original 35mm camera negative, and features a mild grain structure that adds beautiful texture to the rural setting and sparse interiors. Contrast and clarity are quite good, though a few incidents of softness appear here and there. The muted color palette also reflects the barren atmosphere well, but in the flashback scenes more vibrant hues abound, especially in the general's military uniform. The food and drink are also beautifully rendered, from the ruby tones of the red wine and the luxurious brown sauces to the golden tints of puff pastry and brightness of various fruits and vegetables.
Black levels exude good density and fleshtones appear natural and stable throughout. Shadow detail is fine, with no evidence of crush, and background elements are always easy to discern. Close-ups are crisp, but there's a slight diffusion that keeps the image a bit remote, much like the characters in the drama. Facial features are still well defined, but don't expect the razor sharpness and dimensionality that distinguish newer releases. A soothing naturalness predominates, and that's just as it should be.
No nicks, scratches, or stray marks could be detected, nor could any banding, pixilation, or noise. This is another winning transfer from Criterion, one that's a nice step up from the previous DVD and a solid upgrade for fans. Bon appetit!
According to the liner notes, the Danish-language DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track was "remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative." The audio is quite clear, flaunts plenty of nuance, and possesses a lovely resonance that nicely complements the film's quiet nature. Though all the sound remains anchored in the front channels, palpable fidelity lends the track a full-bodied feel, especially during the hymn-singing sequences. Atmospherics, such as a sea breeze and the gentle tide lapping against the shore, are well integrated, and delicate accents, like clanking silverware, the pop of a champagne cork, and stovetop simmering, all come through cleanly.
Dialogue remains solidly prioritized throughout, and the overdubbed narration is authoritative without sounding overbearing. Tonal depth enhances the gentle music score, and any hiss, pops, and crackles that once afflicted the track have been meticulously erased. Though far from flashy, this unobtrusive audio presentation seamlessly connects with the visuals, adding subtle impact to the viewing experience.
A delectable smorgasbord of supplements augments this classy release, including the 64-page booklet described above. The only element lacking is an audio commentary, but the in-depth interviews are a nice substitute.
With its tender heart and gastronomic soul, 'Babette's Feast' remains a very satisfying cinematic dish, and though you don't have to be a foodie to enjoy this touching, uplifting motion picture, it sure helps! Gabriel Axel's simple, charming adaptation of the Isak Dinesen short story consistently stokes the senses, thanks to a cast of memorable characters, an involving story, and a reverential depiction of gourmet cuisine that's sure to invoke hunger pangs. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is almost as appetizing as the movie itself, featuring a top-flight video transfer, solid audio, a fine array of supplements, and beautiful packaging. This 1987 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is long overdue on Blu-ray, but like the lavish meal prepared in the movie, this exquisite release is worth the wait. Highly recommended.