Before Chocolat, Big Night and Like Water for Chocolate, there was Babette’s Feast, which – depending on whether your tastes run to the sweet or savoury – vied with Juzo Itami’s mid-80s arthouse fave Tampopo to provide the starter course for a whole cinema of gastronomic delights. First released in 1987, Gabriel Axel’s immensely pleasurable adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story about a devoutly religious coastal community in 19th century Denmark returns to UK cinemas this week in a new digital print, and it’s adopted a strange new pull over those 25 years as a parable on the benefits of immigration – not least mouthwatering fusion cuisine.
The eponymous Babette (Stéphane Audran) is a French domestique who arrives in Jutland after fleeing the internal chaos that gripped her homeland following the Revolution. As an act of gratitude towards the sisters who take her in, Babette plans a lavish meal for the community’s aging locals, deploying the very latest (and most extravagant) forms of French cuisine. The community adopts its most puritanical collective frown, but they don’t quite know what’s cooking: the chef’s offerings, both edible and otherwise, prove far too good to be sent back to the kitchen.
Familiar faces retained from the Bergman ensemble include Bibi Andersson and Jarl Kulle, but the film – not to its detriment – is something like Bergman purged of any doubt. When dashing career soldier Lorens (Gudmar Klöving) observes that, in life, “all things are possible”, he means all good things, just as Axel takes an immense delight in filming all-natural phenomena: the human voice rising up to the heavens, sunsets and sunrises, fine food and wine. Twenty-five years on, the same advice applies: if you haven’t already made post-screening restaurant reservations, have at least an apple or a bag of crisps to hand.
In the course of the 1988/89 award season, Babette’s Feast received Best Foreign Film prizes from the British and American Academies, as well as the London Critics’ Circle, and it’s easy to see why. Staffed by a twinkly-eyed cast of veterans tucking into strong, innately satisfying source material, and demonstrating an admirable patience in its storytelling, it’s an enduring reminder of the simple life and the good life: a parable of selflessness initially prepared with love and care for the Me generation, yet ready to be savoured whenever things get too complicated. That Christmas shopping expedition can wait a little longer; dinner, however, may not.
(MovieMail, December 2012)
Babette's Feast is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.