Judge Jason Panella actually preferred Babette's Sunday brunch.
"A great artist is never poor."
Babette's Feast isn't extravagant, but it's certainly filling.
Facts of the Case
Sisters Filippa (Bodil Kjer, Jenny and the Soldier) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel, Ordet) live a quiet, pious life in a 19th century Danish village. Their French housekeeper Babette (Stephane Audran, The Big Red One) offers to treat the sisters and their stark community to something they've never experienced: an expertly cooked French meal.
Babette's Feast is not a flashy film. The titular event is not some sense-defying, opulent food extravaganza that radically transforms the film's characters. And I think this is why it works beautifully—the film is modest in its approach to just about everything, opting for a parable of graciousness and simple sacrifice over big gestures.
The ingredients are simple. You have these kind-hearted (but incredibly dour) villagers, you have this mysterious French housemaid, and then you have a meal that changes their lives. Sure, there's nuance as well, but it's surprisingly easy to try to overanalyze Babette's Feast. It's a very literal film—sermon-like, even—that wears its sacramental imagery on its sleeve. But even as Babette's Feast unfolds in an explicitly Christian context, its messages of generosity and forgiveness are wonderfully inclusive. But make no mistake: this film is unabashedly religious in its approach, which may turn off some viewers. (The fact that Babette beat out Louis Malle's excellent Au Revoir Les Enfants for the 1987 Academy Award for Foreign Film also soured some folks to the film, but that's another story.)
Director Gabriel Axel adapted the screenplay himself, sticking closely to Isak Dinesen's short story of the same name. Some things are changed here and there; the location is moved to Denmark, for one, but it's an incredibly faithful adaptation. The film still manages to hang on to the atmosphere of a short story—it's almost like you can hear a page turning every few minutes. What works best on the screen, though, is the feast itself. It's a remarkably restrained affair and, like so many other forms of art, it has the power to slowly mend wounds and transform lives. Not to mention how mouth-watering it looks, which the audience can take in as the preparation and serving of the meal takes up a huge slice of the film. Axel reserves the rest of the film's run time to setting up the situation—we see the sisters as young women and we watch them become the austere elderly women at the film's climax.
Babette's Feast is consistently thoughtful in how it handles the sisters' lives—they're never looked down upon because of mistakes they made earlier in their life, and their faith, while often colorless, is never shown to be a crutch or detriment. It's a drowsily paced movie, too, but there's enough kind-hearted whimsy to keep it from being languorous.
As usual, the Criterion Collection does a fantastic job with the Blu-ray release of Babette's Feast. The 1.66:1/1080p transfer looks magnificent and is virtually free of noise or dirt, a major step up from (what I've seen) previous releases. The stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track (in Danish, with French and Swedish) is incredibly clear and crisp.
There is also a wealth of supplemental material: the original U.S. trailer for the film; "Gabriel Axel," a new interview with the director about the origins of the film; "Stephane Audran," an interview with the actress who plays the film's title character; "Table Scraps," a fascinating visual essay on the film's background; "Karen Blixen: Storyteller," a feature-length documentary about the life of the author of the short story the film is based on; and "An Artist of the Everyday," a new interview for the collection that focuses on French cuisine and its cultural importance. All of the video extras add up to nearly three hours of bonus material, and are also in 1080p. Lastly, the film comes with a 64-page booklet that includes cinema professor Mark Le Fanu's essay "Mercy and Truth Have Met Together," and "Babette's Feast," the short story by Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen) on which the film is based.
Babette's Feast's gradual pace and cold visuals may limit the film's audience, but I thought it was a wonderful celebration of faith, art and food. The Criterion Collection does the film justice with their fantastic Blu-ray release.
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