Babette’s Feast: Criterion Collection
July 24, 2013
Based on the short story of the same name by famous Dutch writer Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dimesen), Babette’s Feast (1987) is one of the highmarks of Scandinavian cinema during the 1980s. Martine (Federspiel) and Philippa (Kjer) are two sisters that live in a small, rural town and spend most of their time doing good deeds for the townsfolk. They belong to a small religious sect founded by their father, a pastor long-deceased. The sisters have a French maid named Babette (Audran) who prepares delicious meals for them. A lengthy flashback takes us back to when Martine and Philippa were young. Their strict father drove off potential suitors, including a soldier deep in debt and a gregarious French artist, and imbued in them a selfless streak that they adhered to for most of their lives. This flashback also explains how Babette came to be their maid, thanks to one of the aforementioned suitors.
The attention to period detail, especially the costumes, is very well done and does an excellent job of transporting us back to the end of the 19th century when the story is set. The film’s centerpiece is an extraordinary meal that Babette makes for the sisters and the dwindling numbers of their father’s believers to mark his centenary. Babette’s Feast finds joy in the small pleasures of life like a good meal. It’s a celebration of the human spirit and how it endures through the ups and downs of life. This is epitomized by Babette and her ability to endure against adversity in her own quiet and unassuming way. This film espouses kindness and generosity in a way that avoids cliché and sappy sentimentality for something more genuinely moving.
The first disc includes a theatrical trailer.
The second disc starts off with an interview with director Gabriel Axel who offers his interpretation of the story’s themes and how he got involved in the project. He talks about the influence of Vermeer’s paintings on the look of Babette’s Feast. He also talks about the importance of music in the film and capturing the tone of the prose. Naturally, he talks about the role food plays.
Also included is an interview with actress Stephane Audran who talks about taking on the role of Babette and how she got it. The actress praises Axel’s adaptation and talks about what it was like preparing for and making the film.
“Table Scraps” is a visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and narrated by actress Lori Singer. It starts at the short story, with a profile of author Karen Blixen, and goes on to analyze the look and themes of the film.
“Karen Blixen-Storyteller” is a 1995 documentary about the author that examines her life and work through archival interviews with her and contemporary ones with friends and students. This is an in-depth look at Blixen and an excellent primer for her work.
Finally, there is “An Artist of the Everyday” featuring sociology professor Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson who examines the role food plays in Babette’s Feast. She traces the origins of French cuisine and explains its importance in French culture.