Babette’s Feast Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Tale of Love, Life, and Food

Gabriel Axel’s multiple award-winning film Babette’s Feast takes place almost entirely in a tiny, remote, 19th century village somewhere near the western Denmark coast. That’s right, kids: it’s a movie that doesn’t have to rely on cell phone reception – so you can exclude this one as a kooky cannibalistic horror film right off the bat. No, Babette’s Feast is instead a drama about something contemporary cinema seems to have missed the mark on: the human factor. Based on the novel by Danish author Karen Blixen (1885-1962), the 1987 Academy Award-winning film begins with a tale of two elderly sisters, Martine and Filippa (Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer, respectively) – who, as our narrator conveys to us via lengthy flashbacks, have devoted their entire life to a Christian sect beget by their father.

Willingly sacrificing any possibilities of physical love to bestow their time and effort to both their Heavenly Father as well as their paternal one, we witness the young versions of the sisters (Vibeke Hastrup and Hanne Stensgaard) each passing up a strong male suitor – one, a general; the other a famous French singer. Decades pass, and the devoted duo begin to find it harder to care for the remaining men and women of their sect until a woman named Babette arrives on their shores with a letter from the singer, wherein he beseeches the good-natured, God-fearing ladies to take in his niece to spare her the horrors of the ongoing Paris Commune.

Thus, Babette (Stephane Audran) serves as the ladies’ live-in, unpaid cook – managing to fit in with the villagers quite well, and they grow to appreciate her over the course of fourteen years. As the 100th birthday of the sisters’ late father draws nigh, Babette’s only connection to France – an annual lottery ticket – awards her the sum of 10,000 francs. And so, she decides it’s time to repay her hosts and the members of the religious group with a fantastic French feast on epic proportions. Trouble is, once the ladies see the variety of previously-unheard-of (to them) creatures and exotic items (to say nothing of the fabulous selection of exquisite wines!) they begin to feel like they are about to be plunged into a sea of sin and vow to not say a single word about the food – which makes for one of the funniest dinner conversations ever as Martine’s former pursuant (Jarl Kulle) tries to explain the many delicacies to the others.

Superbly balancing drama with off-kilter comedy (or maybe the Danes are just naturally weird like that), Axel directs his own screen adaptation admirably here – giving us a truly heart-warming story about love, life, and the oft-neglected art of preparing immaculate feasts for far-removed zealots who really don’t know a single damn thing about the ways of the world around them. The Criterion Collection adds this Oscar/BAFTA/Golden Globe/Grand Prix/Bodil/Robert (!)-winning masterpiece to their roster with a stunning High-Def presentation that presents a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer. Taken from the original 35mm camera negative, the image here has had most of its unsightly debris removed entirely, and the end-result is very crisp, detailed, and colorful (as Axel’s palette allows). The sole Danish 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio option delivers the film’s mostly dialogue-driven soundtrack exceptionally well (some portions of the film are spoken in French, with a single line in English), and Criterion’s English subtitles are clear and easy-to-read.

Criterion’s impressive list of special features for Babette’s Feast include interviews with director Axel, actress Stephane Audran, and sociology professor/author Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (the latter of whom is onboard to talk about French cuisine, since that’s a vital part of the flick). A 1995 documentary and new visual essay (narrated by Lori Singer) about the late Karen Blixen are also on-hand here, as is the original American trailer from Orion Classics. An included illustrated booklet from film scholar Mark Le Fanu also boasts Blixen’s original story from whence the film in question was based. And we all know how hard it is to get the original story and the movie version in one package.

Highly recommended.

Luigi Bastardo

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