Babette's Feast (1987)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Family Drama, Period Film  |   Release Date - Mar 4, 1988 (USA)  |   Run Time - 105 min.  |   Countries - Denmark  |   MPAA Rating - G
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Review by Dan Jardine

The sophisticated and subtle screenplay for Babette's Feast, adapted by director Gabriel Axel, is based on a story written by Isak Dinesen, the writer memorably played by Meryl Streep in the biopic Out of Africa. In the film's first half, the emotional detachment of the pious characters is mirrored in the directorial approach, which allows the narrator to explain the matters before us, keeping us at a distance. When the feast begins, the narrator steps aside, Axel's direction becomes more evocative, and our participation becomes more active. Axel plays things low-key: his camera doesn't swoop or dance, but lingers lovingly over every aspect of the meal. The soundtrack includes some beautiful period music, but Axel mostly allows the sounds of the meal to become the symphony of the feast. Made out of humility and love, the feast is Babette's supreme artistic expression, and her hedonistic present encourages the feasters to look a little more closely at their own lives, as the magical and voluptuous feast dramatically counterpoints their puritanical existence. Babette's offering is a ritual sacrifice, intended to encourage the austere characters with the possibility that their material nourishment may provide spiritual sustenance as well. The film also contains a cultural context, as the political revolutions in 19th century Europe lead to Babette's displacement and the resultant cultural blending of Babette's southern European Catholic sensuality with sober northern European Protestantism. Their pact, to say nothing about the magnificence of the feast, ironically reveals the ineffable truth that Babette's artistic expression of love cannot be properly praised with words. Like the guests' spiritual values, it exists on a higher plane, where simple acts of generosity can erase personal prejudices. The film leaves us with a haunting echo of the roads not taken, as the characters must ponder the paths they have chosen and ask themselves: have they made the most of their gifts? Babette's Feast won several major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the British BAFTA Award for Best Film of 1987.