Starring: Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel
Running Time: 102 minutes
The sparse dialogue, muted colours, and slow pace of this Oscar-winning 1987 Danish drama from director Gabriel Axel – reissued as a 25th anniversary celebration – perfectly encapsulates the bleak, repressed lifestyle of the Puritan community it depicts. A period drama that stands apart from the sumptuous love affairs, corsets, and scandals of your standard Hollywood Jane Austen fare, Babette’s feast is more about potential romance, unspoken desires, and unfulfilled dreams – and is all the more affecting for it.
Based on the story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast centres around the two beautiful daughters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) of a respected pastor, who founded a Christan sect in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland. The film cuts between the sisters’ youth, rejecting potential suitors in favour of a life of piety; and their old age, when their dwindling community is revived by the arrival of chef Babette, fleeing the ruins of her old life in France.
This is certainly not a film for everyone; but the touches of gentle humour and the restrained script certainly provide food for thought (excuse the pun). The virtues of modesty versus fulfilling one’s potential; serving others or serving oneself; casting away sins over personal expression: are questions director Axel poses without enforcing his own views.
The downside of this relentless elegance is that despite solid performances from the whole cast, it’s difficult to engage with any of the dour-faced, modest characters and only the eponymous Babette, played by Stéphane Audran, is able to offer any colour, encapsulated by the lavish feast she lays on in the final act.
As you might imagine, the pace is rather plodding. Arguably some of the most interesting ideas are jammed into the final fifteen minutes, and some viewers might lose interest along the way. But the film ends with a faintly hopeful and surprising message: not every opportunity must be grabbed immediately, sometimes life gives you a second chance.