Gabriel Axel

Orion Classics

Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, Bibi Andersson, Thomas Antoni, Jean Philippe Lafont

BABETTE'S FEAST: Denmark 1987, digital, color, Danish, French, G, 102 min


SHOWTIMES THRU 7/15: 5:45p [ ENDS THU 7/15 ]


WINNER: 1988 Academy Awards USA: Oscar Best Foreign Language Film
WINNER: 1989 Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury
Nomination: 1989 Golden Globes USA: Best Foreign Language Film

A woman flees the French civil war and lands in a small seacoast village in Denmark, where she comes to work for two spinsters, devout daughters of a puritan minister. Both girls sacrifice youthful passion to faith and duty, and even many years after their father's death, they keep his austere teachings of salvation through self-denial alive among the townspeople. After many years, Babette unexpectedly wins a lottery, and decides to create a real French dinner--which leads the sisters to fear for their souls. The village elders all resolve not to enjoy the meal, but can their moral fiber resist the sensual pleasure of Babette's gourmet cooking? Written and directed by Gabriel Axel, from a short story by Out of Africa's Isak Dinesen, this delicious film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

BABETTE'S FEAST is set in the second half of the 19th century on Denmark's remote Jutland coast, in a small fishing village whose most notable inhabitants are a fervent Protestant pastor and his two beautiful, pious daughters, Martine and Filippa. Mindful of their responsibilities to their father and his reformist mission, each daughter turns down a beloved suitor. Martine's is a young officer, Filippa's a famous French opera star who has been vacationing on the Jutland coast.

After their father's death, the two young women slip into unmarried middle age, carrying on the pastor's work with saintly dedication. One night, in the middle of a terrible storm, Babette (Stephane Audran) turns up at their door, battered by weather and circumstances, and carrying a letter of introduction from Filippa's opera singer, now old and retired. Having lost both her husband and son in the Paris Commune, Babette, he explains, needs political sanctuary. He begs the sisters to take her in. The sisters, who are nearly penniless, accept Babette's offer to act as their unpaid housekeeper.

In time, Babette becomes an indispensable though ever enigmatic member of the household. Her Roman Catholicism is politely ignored. She brings order and efficiency to the sisters' lives as defenders of their father's aging flock, which, over the years, has become split by old grievances and jealousies. Babette cooks, cleans, washes and sews, always remaining aloof and proud, at a distance from her benefactors.

All of this is by way of being the prelude to the film's extended, funny and moving final sequence, a spectacular feast, the preparation and execution of which reveal Babette's secret and the nature of her sustaining glory.

It's not telling too much to report that this glory is Art - in Babette's case, a very special God-given talent. BABETTE'S FEAST is an affirmation of Art as the force by which, in the words of the old pastor (who never quite realized what he was saying), "righteousness and bliss," otherwise known as the spirit and the flesh, shall be reconciled.

Mr. Axel, a film maker new to me who has worked as much in France as in Denmark, treats the Dinesen text with self-effacing but informed modesty. The understated courage of the characters, the barren beauty of the landscape and, finally, the unexpected appearance of salvation are all effortlessly defined in images and language that reflect the writer's style - swift, clean, witty and elegant. nytimes