The route of great literature to the big screen may be paved with compromise, but the stories of Danish author Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen) have been richly served by the moving image. Orson Welles wrought an immaculate gem of a film from her short story ‘The Immortal Story’ in 1968, though sadly his adaptation of two of her tales for a film project called The Dreamers was never completed.
But it was in the 1980s that Blixen’s cinematic stock really came to the boil: her autobiographical novel about her time in Kenya was the basis for Out of Africa, which swept the Oscars (including Best Picture) for 1985. Then in 1987, Gabriel Axel’s film of the story ‘Babette’s Feast’, a sensuous celebration of the pleasures of good food and drink, won that year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
It’s the tale of a Parisian chef (Stéphane Audran) displaced by the 1830s Communard uprising who comes to live as a servant to two elderly sisters in a frugal Christian community on Denmark’s Jutland coast. At first she bends to their abstemious life and diet, her services warmly appreciated by her benevolent hosts, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer).
But when a stroke of good fortune enables her to leave their service and return to France, she takes the opportunity to treat the community to a lavish, multi-course masterpiece of French cuisine, which the film turns into an extraordinary set piece that ranks among the cinema’s most mouthwatering meals.
Back in cinemas 25 years after its Oscar success, Axel’s film has had a new generation of film critics reaching for their foodiest adjectives, and Empire magazine has called the film “gastro-cinema at its most sensual and intoxicating.”
But several critics have made pains to point out there’s more to Babette’s Feast than coveting its comestibles. “If you’re salivating over the food, you’re missing the point,” counselled The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. For him, it’s more a story about the pious sisters’ denial of pleasure:
It is as if the portions of everyday sensuality they have refused all their lives are now to be totalled up and paid to them all at once in this remarkable feast, just when they must bid farewell to the world, with all its pleasures and vanities.
The Telegraph’s Tim Robey was surprised by Axel’s film’s “austere elegance rather than its gastro-porn credentials”. Referring to the film as “melancholy bliss”, Robey took delight in the final meal scene, but for its tantalising restraint more than its sense of indulgence:
The whole climax is a delight, because of the refusal of almost all the assembled guests to enjoy themselves vocally – they stick to the agreed mantra that food is a mere necessity, despite the astonishingly intricate dishes […] that Audran keeps laying before them.
Little White Lies’ David Jenkins was less satisfied, his stomach turned by those same shots of the sisters’ unspoken rapture: “Axel’s film deals in light, homefried homilies and lingering, Vaseline-lensed shots of doddery oldsters trying to refrain from expressing their near-orgasmic delight.” He concedes “it’s a charming tale that’s told with admirable control”, but asserts that, “unlike Babette, Axel militantly sticks to tried and trusted flavours.”
Such dissenting voices were almost entirely absent from the British press upon the film’s release in 1987, with critics responding with unreserved praise, as if Axel’s film sated a hunger for simple, humane stories that late 80s cinema had undernourished. “Babette’s Feast is a good story immaculately told (even better in the cinema than on the page),” wrote Philip French in The Observer. “It might well become, like A Room with a View , a classic of literary adaptation.”
Writing in The Independent, Sheila Johnston agreed that Axel’s film was a consummate dramatisation:
The slender anecdote becomes something more through the nice insights of Blixen and her adaptor, the Danish-French director Gabriel Axel. A leisurely prologue traces the sisters’ doomed girlhood romances, their lovers’ fates and the strange circumstances that brought the Frenchwoman into their service. These discursive byways are so fascinating, however, and narrated with such assurance […] that you never lose confidence in his control over the material.
“The film has a positive centre as a story about choices but the joy of Axel’s film is its lightness of touch,” found Victoria Mather in The Daily Telegraph. “He presents the mysteries and subtleties so gracefully and, while tempering Dinesen’s sly humour with kindness, never loses the incisive edge that allows us to know the characters.”
But the most salivating prose was reserved for Babette’s feast itself. “There never was such a meal on the screen,” claimed The Times’s David Robinson, noting Axel’s collaboration with one of Copenhagen’s most esteemed gourmands, Jan Pedersen of La Cocotte. In the Evening Standard, Alexander Walker wrote: “The actual preparation and cooking of the repast – which took two weeks’ filming – is itself a mini-film of mouthwatering finesse.”
Calling the dinner scene a “pièce de résistance” and advising that the viewer not see the film on an empty stomach, The Independent’s Sheila Johnston added that “A great meal is, Blixen argues, not a mere fleshly indulgence; like a love affair, it offers a mystical fusion of bodily and spiritual delight.”
The Telegraph’s critic, then as now, suggested that the most captivating aspect of the scene was less the food itself than the response to its flavours and presentation by the diners:
The richest ingredient of the feast is the uncomprehending delectation of the guests. Their puritanism prevents overt enjoyment: “Man should refrain from any thought of food and drink.” But the roseate faces, the reactions, the widening of wine-brightened eyes and the warm good fellowship that dispels their crabby local feuds is beautifully observed and gently comic without ever patronising their innocence.
“Such a tour de force is difficult to bring off lest the sly humour turns into cynicism and the laughter into sneers,” warned Derek Malcolm in The Guardian. “But the playing is so good and the direction and photography (by Henning Kristiansen) so sure that the film’s point, about the value of artistry and the true meaning of pleasure, cannot be either missed or misinterpreted.”
With this point, the Financial Times’s critic Nigel Andrews disagreed. “The climactic banquet scene is accompanied by too many winks and nods from the director: as if to say, ‘Ooh, look at that old dear giving the claret the glad eye!’ or ‘Tee hee, I wonder what their reaction to the vintage champagne will be.’”
But he too found himself eventually won over by Axel’s film banquet, seduced by Stéphane Audran’s performance as Babette:
With her sculpted cheekbones and patrician gaze, the former first lady of Claude Chabrol’s films is an irresistible force of nurture. She sallies forth from Paris to pit cultured paganism against diehard Christian frugality. And as soon as we see her concerned gourmet hand hover over the condemned turtle, we know it is all up for Danish self-denial and that Dinesen is served.