Gabriel Axel directs Stephane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer in this decade spanning tale of two devout sisters who devote themselves to spiritual goodness in their community and their French refugee housekeeper who prepares a banquet for them.
Sometimes it is harder to create a film with no obvious stakes in its plot. And equally it is difficult to put into words why such a gentle movie as this works quite so well. Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, this is unshowy and restrained in it magisterial sweep. Unlike Scanners, the most transgressive and exciting things gets is when Babette pleasantly barters with a shopkeeper over prices. Cinema doesn’t need to be confrontational, or spectacular, or even relatable, to work. And Babette’s Feast is one of the best movies I have watched in months but its qualities and pleasures are subtle at best. A simple tale of two ageing religious sisters, and their French housekeeper who decides to reward them for their kindness by cooking an extravagant meal. The period setting and cloistered lifestyle of eighteenth century coastal Denmark are captured with a warm, lyrical lens. A hard and unseasoned life of graft, altruism and praying is presented very seductively. We meet (in flashback) a reckless soldier and a famous Parisian baritone, both of whom are presented as the lost loves of the sisters’ youth. But “lost” is not the right word, so much as unpursued. In other, more didactic, movies, we’d take these romantic interludes as mere entertainment. Little tragedies that might suggest the pure sisters could not find true happiness in their circumstances and sacrifices. In the deceptively unsophisticated context of this film however, the dashing men are choices not taken, the sisters silently decide life together helping the poor is more attractive to them than separation, worldly lust and male companionship. Who are we to say they are wrong? But their brief dalliances with these men, personification of a changing Europe, echo further into their life. One sends them Babette, the other returns at an opportune moment to realise just how rare and valuable Babette’s epic meal truly is. In fact, there is a perpetual sly humour to the last act – the sisters and townsfolk feel the impending feast might be sinful or even exotically inedible so make a pact not to comment on it in anyway. Meanwhile our worldly soldier who has experienced all the finer things cannot understand why these simple folk are not effusive in their praise for what would be the finest dining in anyone’s life. Suffice to say it all culminates on a less ironic note than that wryly amusing running gag suggest. But like other uplifting films (let’s say It’s a Wonderful Life or Harold and Maude) Babette’s Feast has sharper edges hidden within it than more supposedly intellectually challenging works. It presents a different take on life and heroism than cinema generally lends itself to, while still managing to be as rich, tasty and fulfilling an entertainment as one of Babette’s decadent courses. Spoil yourself with this modern Danish classic.