Denmark, the nineteenth century. Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), two sisters, live with their pastor father in a small isolated village. Both of them gave up love for the sake of duty, modesty and good works. One day, a Frenchwoman Babette (Stéphane Audran) arrives in the village, a refugee from the Revolution, and the two sisters take her in as a maid and cook. Time passes, and the pastor dies. Filippa and Martine decide to hold a dinner to mark his hundredth anniversary...but then Babette has won the lottery and decides to prepare the greatest feast any of the villagers have seen in their lives.
It's a sign of age when films you saw first time round get reissues later on. I passed that point long ago, but it still gives me pause to realise that Babette's Feast, a film I saw in London on its original release in March 1988 (at the now-defunct and much-lamented Lumiere Cinema, another nostalgic touchstone), now has a reissue to mark its silver anniversary. It's often dangerous to go back again, but on this occasion the film survived: it is as good as I remembered, and a lesson that the perfect miniature has as much power as the epic.
We see films in different ways at different times for many reasons, age and life experience being just one. In 1988, Out of Africa was a recent big movie, a Best Picture Oscar winner, and Isak Dinesen, always a highly-regarded writer, became known to the general public as much by her real name (Karen Blixen) as by her pseudonym.Babette's Feast was based on her novella, first published in 1958. The film also rode a small wave of foodie movies, for example Juzo Itami's far less family-friendly Tampopo. But now it's 2013. I doubt anyone claims that Out of Africa is one of the great films of the 1980s, seven Oscars notwithstanding – I haven't seen it in over twenty-five years, but it always seemed a worthy if a little dull literary adaptation, though it absolutely deserved David Watkin's cinematography Oscar, and Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated role as Karen is a masterclass in technique but never convinced me she was not acting as opposed to actually being her character. Nowadays, Babette's Feast reappears at a time when there is much interest in things Scandinavian, including the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma was recently voted the best in the world. This film has added resonance in world cinema terms due to its cast members' previous history with Dreyer and Bergman. And that's not to forget Stéphane Audran's history with Claude Chabrol, another director with a clear passion for food. Also, in the meantime, Babette's Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film (beating among others Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants and the Norwegian Pathfinder) and the BAFTA in the same category (where it beat Au revoir les enfants again, and also Wings of Desire).
Gabriel Axel (born in April 1918 and still with us as of this writing) has had a long career in his native Denmark, both on film and television, but outside that country he's not really known for anything other than Babette's Feast, which is one of his later works. Only one earlier film seems to have had a British release, a 1971 sex comedy Med kærlig hilsen, which appears two years later on the BBFC website under the title Love Me Darling. Apart from his contribution to the 1995 portmanteau film Lumière and Company, his only subsequent film to be released in the UK was Prince of Jutland, a version of Hamlet based not on Shakespeare but the original play that the Bard drew upon, which went straight to video and has recently been reissued on DVD under the title Thrones and Empires. As I haven't seen any of his films other than Babette's Feast, I don't know if I'm missing a lot, or if Axel was a filmmaker with just the one classic in him. He spent thirty years working in France and spent ten trying to get this film made. Stéphane Audran was second choice for the role of Babette, winning it after Catherine Deneuve passed. Karl Lagerfelf was the costume designer.
Babette's Feast is based on a novella rather than a novel, and is further evidence that that story length, in between a short story and a novel, is a good one for translating into a film of an hour and a half or so: substantial enough not to seem overstretched, but without having to lose too much, like the average novel. The film spends its first half-hour with narrated flashbacks filling in the backstories of Filippa and Martine, imparting some information that will pay off later on The film makes its points lightly and delicately: it's a story of art and the impulse to make it, of sensual pleasure and its enjoyment. It's not hard to guess the reveal at the end, but that's beside the point: what we have seen prepared and eaten on screen is Babette's great artwork. Axel films the story simply, without undue directorial flourishes as with material like this he doesn't need them. The performances are a delight, with much humour deriving from the locals' pleasure in what is served to them winning out over their religious-based puritanism and distrust of anything other than plainness. It's a small-scale story, but like much work in a minor key, it resonates.
Babette's Feast is released on Blu-ray (the edition under review) and DVD. The Blu-ray is encoded for Region B, and the affiliate links refer to that edition. For those for the DVD (Region 2 only), go here.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1. The nearest theatrical ratio to that would be 1.75:1, which is a possibility, as would 1.85:1 be. The IMDB says the film is in 1.66:1, but this transfer doesn't look like it has been cropped, so I note this information as I doubt it. In any case, this Blu-ray of a film shot and edited on 35mm film looks as it should, with Axel and his DP's Henning Kristiansen's muted colour scheme coming over well, and grain being natural and filmlike.
Babette's Feast was released with an analogue Dolby Stereo soundtrack, and that's the source of the LPCM 2.0 track on this DVD, mostly in Danish but with some dialogue in French and Swedish. The surrounds are used for the music score and there is the occasional directional effect, such as a brass fanfare to your left in an early scene. This is a dialogue-driven film, and that's clear enough. English subtitles are optional for the film and the extras.
The main extra is an interview with Stéphane Audran (6:52), who speaks in French. This is necessarily brief – that running time includes several extracts from the film – but covers how she got the role, not having heard of Karen Blixen at the time. She describes the bemused reactions of the crew to the cooking arrangements on screen, and talks about Karl Lagerfeld's contribution.
The extras are concluded by two trailers, the original theatrical trailer (3:24, presented in 4:3) and the much shorter one (1:32, presented in 16:9) used by the BFI for their theatrical reissue.