Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel)

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Gabriel Axel’s period Danish classic Babette’s Feast had its time in the zeitgeist; along with Wings of Desire and Bagdad Cafe, it represented a moment in time when European cinema of a lofty, literary — and, significantly, uniformly uplifting — variety very nearly went mainstream in America. Axel’s film eventually received the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film, sort of a meaningless totem prize, but there you have it. It’s seldom spoken of out in the real world today, but in certain circles — like just about any film guide you might pick up that had editions published in the late ’80s — it’s still mentioned in soft, reverent tones. Broadly, it speaks of the endlessly giving and pious nature of a pair of elderly women, the daughters of a great and rather repressive Christian patriarch, and how their world is briefly turned upside down when their favorite housekeeper Babette — who voluntarily works for free in exchange for room and board — wins the lottery and decides to prepare a vast dinner for her benefactors and a few carefully chosen guests.

It’s a film that teases rather than seduces; much as it may rely on our curiosity about and interest in food — and what subject could be more universal? — it’s more than anything a tantalizing glimpse at buried, unstated, unresolved feelings. It feels at times even like a nod to classic Hollywood filmmaking, especially that of John Ford, who frequently used such placid, domesticated settings to silently, dramatically illustrate unspoken and forbidden emotions. Babette’s tantalizing dinner by candlelight is both an uncovering and a further burying of truths, all underneath a directly religious stoicism.

Babette’s Feast is certainly tasteful and has aged well enough, even if it now seems hard to imagine any such cute and inoffensive movie inspiring so much widespread affection. A person who’s known the film by reputation is as likely to find it enchanting as disappointing, perhaps in equal measure. The first two thirds are absolutely beguiling, but they seem to be setting up a story that never really arrives. We’re introduced to the sisters (Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel) in their youth, when various male temptations come and go until they’re resigned to a live of quiet duty and faith, and then to Babette (Stephane Audran) as she comes to the flock in desperation then stays in gratitude, and at length to the few remaining faithful followers of the late minister, whose hundredth birthday is the prompt for the central gathering; this crowd of aged Danish actors is quite amusing, but it’s hard to detect if that was the intent. Some of the levity seems misplaced. The feast itself, which is more amusingly awkward than appetizing, is the setup for what amounts to a bit of a shaggy dog joke: nothing changes, we get only sumptuous, metaphorically charged visions of what might have been. There’s little of the urgency of, for instance, the flashback scenes in Black Narcissus, even if the narrative intentions are quite similar.

And maybe it’s because I think the arbitrary pleasure-denying manifesto espoused by the sisters’ father is silly bordering on repulsive, but I can’t say that the final validation of this cold and isolated existence sits well with me. Author Karen Blixen, who wrote the story that serves as the film’s basis, seems to suggest a certain nobility in self-denial; not that such restraint isn’t sort of commendable, but can one truly look upon the Turin Horse-like squalor and misplaced devotion that marks the lives of these women and see a more fulfilled, happy existence than that of the loudmouthed soldier (Jarl Kulle) who once sought the affections of one of them? Even Babette herself, who’s benefitted from the ladies’ oppressive selflessness, doesn’t seem to think so, and nor does the film, which begs the question of what exactly the point finally is. Despite the joy at the magic-evening finale, when everyone pops out of the house wine-drunk and slap-happy, there is no real note of regret at the decades of quiet. It’s as though the film makes a value judgment then blushes and looks away.

Some parts of Babette’s Feast are sheer magic, though (the singing lesson, the Lynchian dream sequence, the meaningful glances between a certain pair during the dinner, and nearly all of the performances), and the sense of time and place is breathtaking, but it feels like a piece of sweeping, ghostly cinema that coalesces unfortunately — with pat speechifying — into a mediocre telefilm. It works best when it either has fun or seems on the verge of saying something about the repression on display, but again, Black Narcissus it ain’t, and The Trouble with Harry is a better movie about how artists enrich the lives of us regular folk. Ratatouille is a better movie about the same thing with regard to food. Yet I can’t agree wholly with the accusations that this is middlebrow claptrap either — it does sing a little. The Academy-beloved politeness of it all might have been bothersome if there weren’t such a slight off-kilter slyness to it, in which sense its restraint works strongly in its favor. By any measure it’s not exactly exciting or bold moviemaking, whatever the language.

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