DVD. Artificial Eye.
a certain irony in the fact that, for some time, I had no time
for Babette's Feast, so thoroughly was I put
off the film by the hysterical gushing of the likes of Barry Norman
(rule of thumb: if Bazza loved it in the 1980s, it was probably
awful) when it was first released. After all, this is a story
all about pleasure – more to the point, the denial of pleasure
and the eventual discovery and acceptance of it. And I'm glad
that I finally opened up to the film, which is a lovely, bittersweet
tale of love, religion and food.
Set in the harsh coastal area of Jutland in the 19th Century,
the plot is simple – sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspeil)
and Filippa (Bodil Kjer) have grown up in a pious, severe Christian
sect, giving up opportunities for love and freedom. By the time
French refugee Babette (Stephane Audran) arrives in their lives
– literally turning up at their door in the middle of the
night – their lives have passed them by and their congregation
is a dwindling band of old, increasingly fractious miserablists.
They accept Babette into their home as a servant, but when she
wins the French lottery, she insists on making a celebratory dinner
for the worshippers – who are so terrified of the idea of
pleasure that they decide not to speak of the sumptuous food and
drink they are about to be served. But the heart, of course, can
override the head, and the food begins to open them up to feelings
they had long denied.
Windswept and austere, the film has a quiet, minimalist feel to
it, Gabriel Axel's studied direction and restrained adaptation
of Karen Blixen's story allowing the slow development of the characters,
with extensive flashbacks within flashbacks handled deftly, giving
flow where there could have easily been confusion. Thing begin
to come to life in the last half hour, which is pretty much entirely
devoted to the titular feast, as the colours of the food and the
setting sweep away the monochrome feel of the spartan lives led
by these people. There is something sensual about the meal, Babette's
fastidious preparations and the slowly unfolding pleasures –
rarely has a film captured the joy that food and drink can bring
so well (I imagine that even now, the British Medical Council
are lobbying for it to be banned lest it encourages anyone to
think of eating as anything more than a necessary evil).
Babette's Feast is a genuinely charming film
– a slight one, perhaps, but full of moments that are remarkable,
performances that are flawless and topped with Per Nørgård's
simple but perfect score, it is a thing of genuine beauty. This
new edition should, hopefully, return to it a degree of the attention
it once had.
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