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Babette's Feast ( ) is a 1987 Danish film directed by Gabriel Axel. The film's screenplay was written by Gabriel Axel based on the story by Isak Dinesen , who also wrote the story which inspired the 1985 Academy Award winning film Out of Africa. Produced by Just Betzer, Bo Christensen, and Benni Korzen with funding from the Danish Film Institute, Babette's Feast was the first Danish cinema film of a Blixen story. It was also the first Danish film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.

Plot

Babette's Feast begins with a portrait of two elderly and pious Christian sisters. The sisters, Martina (named for Martin Luther) and Philippa (named for Luther's friend and biographer Philip Melanchthon), live in a small village on the remote and beautiful, but also barren and chilly, western coast of Jutland in the 19th century (1871). Philippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) are the daughters of a pastor who founded his own strict Christian sect. Though the pastor himself has long since died, and the sect draws no new converts, the aging sisters preside lovingly over their dwindling brood of white-haired, rural resident believers.

The story falls back in time to depict how each sister, in her youth, was a ravishing beauty. Each is courted by an impassioned suitor visiting Jutland- Martina by a charming but dissolute young officer of the Swedishmarker cavalry, and Philippa by a recuperating star baritone from the Parismarker opera. Each of the male suitors falls desperately in love, and develops grand plans both for himself and the "angel" he imagines by his side on the road to worldly renown. But each daughter eventually deflects her pursuer, choosing, instead, a life of quiet piety and Puritanical simplicity in their father's footsteps. Their father has long considered his daughters to be his "right and left hand", and he has spent much of his life ensuring that no one remove his vital appendages, as he is of the belief that marriage and happiness as such is a falsehood.

Many years later, when the sisters are in their fifties, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran) appears at their door. She carries only a letter from Philippa's former suitor, the singer Achille Papin, explaining that she is a refugee from counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris, and recommending her as a housekeeper. The sisters take Babette in, and she spends fourteen years as their cook, a modest but benign figure who gradually eases their lives and the lives of many in the remote village. Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs which would surely allow her to return to her former home in adequate style. However, she instead decides to use the money to prepare a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor's hundredth birthday. More than just an epicurean delight, the feast is an outpouring of Babette's appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice with eucharistic echoes; though she doesn't tell anyone, Babette is spending her entire winnings on her gesture of gratitude.

The sisters agree to accept Babette's meal, and her offer to pay for the creation of a "real French dinner". She leaves the island for a few days in order to return to Paris, as she must personally arrange for supplies to be sent to Jutland. The ingredients are plentiful, sumptuous and exotic, and their arrival causes much discussion amongst the clan. As the various never-before-seen ingredients arrive, and preparations commence, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will be, at best, a great sin of sensual luxury, and at worst some form of devilry or witchcraft. In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but to forego any pleasure in it, and to make no mention of the food during the entire dinner.

The last and most relevant part of the film is the preparation and the serving of an extraordinary banquet of royal dimensions, lavishly deployed in the unpainted austerity of the sisters' rustic home. The film, previously showing mainly winterly whites and grays, gradually picks up more and more colours, focusing on the various and delectable dishes, a feast for the spectator as well.

Martina's former suitor, now a famous general married to a member of the Queen's court, reappears as one of the guests (his aunt is the local lady of the manor and a member of the old pastor's congregation). He is unaware of the other guest's austere plans, and as a man of the world and former attache in Paris, he is the only person at the table able to comment on the meal. He provides the guests with abundant and explicit information about the extraordinary quality of the food and drink, culminating in a brief reflective speech based on Psalm 85: "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other". He pronounces that the feast reminds him strongly of similar fare he has enjoyed many years before at the famous "Café Anglaismarker" in Paris. He describes how the chef there was renowned for her extraordinary culinary skills.

Although the other celebrants do their best to reject the earthly pleasures of the food and drink, Babette's extraordinary gifts as a Chef de Cuisine and a true connoisseur, so characteristically French, breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them not only physically but spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table — thanks to the general elation nurtured by the consumption of so many fine culinary delicacies and spirits. The eucharistic, albeit mundane celebration around the table shadows the "infinite grace… [that] had been allotted to them, and they did not even wonder at the fact, for it had been but the fulfillment of an ever-present hope."

The menu responsible for their pleasure features "Potage à la Tortue" (turtle soup); "Blini Demidoff au Caviar" (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); "Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine" (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); "La Salad" featuring Belgian endive and walnuts in a vinaigrette; and "Les Fromages" featuring Blue Cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple. The grand finale dessert is "Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée" (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines, including Clos de Vougeotmarker, along with various champagnes and spirits, complete the menu. Babette's purchase of the finest china, flatware, crystal and linens with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette, who is none other than the famous former Chef of Café Anglais. Babette's previous occupation has been unknown to the sisters until she confides in them after the meal.

The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris, and when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then tells them that dinner for 12 at the Café Anglais has a price of 10,000 francs. Martina tearfully says, "Now you will be poor the rest of your life", to which Babette replies, "An artist is never poor". Philippa then tells her that in paradise Babette will indeed be the great artist God intended her to be.

Cast



Production

Location

Blixen's original story takes place in the Norwegian port town of Berlevågmarker, a setting of multi-colored wood houses on a long fjord. However, when Axel researched locations in Norway, he found the setting was too idyllic and resembled a "beautiful tourist brochure." He shifted the location to the flat windswept coast of western Jutland and asked his set designer, Sven Wichmann, to build a small grey village resembling a one-horse town. Also, Axel altered the setting from a ship-filled harbor to fisherman's rowboats on a beach. Axel said the changes would highlight Blixen's vision of Babette's life in near complete exile.
"There is a lot that works in writing, but when translated to pictures, it doesn't give at all the same impression or feeling.
All the changes I undertook, I did to actually be faithful to Karen Blixen."
– Gabriel Axel


Casting

The Nordisk Film production company suggested the cast of Babette's Feast should include only Danish actors in order to reduce production costs. However, Axel wanted Danish, Swedish and French actors to play the roles for the sake of authenticity. Axel was supported by the Danish Film Institute's consultant, Clæs Kastholm Hansen, who also agreed the cast should include international stars.

The title character of Babette was initially offered to Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve was interested in the part but was concerned because she had been criticized in her past attempts to depart from her usual sophisticated woman roles. While Deneuve deliberated for one day, Axel met with French actress Stéphane Audran. Axel remembered Audran from her roles in Claude Chabrol's films Violette Nozière and Poulet au vinaigre. When Axel asked Chabrol (who was her ex-husband) about Audran's suitability, Chabol said Audran was the archetype of Babette. Axel gave the script to Audran, told her that Deneuve was contemplating the role, and asked her if she might be able to respond before the next day. Audran called two hours later and said she wanted the role. The following day, Deneuve declined, and Audran was officially cast.

Two other major parts were the characters of the elderly maiden sisters, Phillipa and Martine. Phillipa, the once-promising singer, was portrayed by Bodil Kjer, considered the first lady of Danish theater and namesake of the Bodil Award. Birgitte Federspiel, best known for Carl Dreyer's 1955 classic film Ordet, was cast as the staid, love forlorn, Martine.

The role of the Swedish General Lorens Löwenhielm, the former suitor of Martine, was accepted by Jarl Kulle and the Swedish Court Lady by Bibi Andersson. Both had achieved international recognition as two of Ingmar Bergman's favorite actors, appearing in many of his films.

The group of elderly villagers was composed of Danish actors, many of whom were well-known for their roles in the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. These included Lisbeth Movin as the Old Widow, Preben Lerdorff Rye as the Captain, Axel Strøbye as the Driver, Bendt Rothe as Old Nielsen and Ebbe Rode as Christopher.

The popular Danish actress Ghita Nørby was cast as the film's narrator. Although production consultants complained to Axel that the use of a narrator was too old-fashioned, Axel was adamant about using one. He said it wasn't about being old-fashioned, but only about the need: "If there is need for a narrator, then one uses one."

Awards

Babette's Feast won the 1987 Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards; the other nominees were Asignatura aprobada of Spainmarker, Au revoir, les enfants of Francemarker, La Famiglia of Italymarker and Ofelas of Norwaymarker. It also won a BAFTA Film Award for Best Film Not in the English Language and was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film. It won both the Bodil and Robert awards for Best Danish Film of the Year.

Popular culture

  • One of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons showed a group of grimacing people in beds in a hospital ward. It was titled: Babette's Botulism: The Sequel.




  • In the 11th episode of season 1 of Showtime's Nurse Jackie, ER administrator Gloria Akalitus tells a film critic patient he should consider giving Babette's Feast another chance.


References

  1. "Babette's Feast", in Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard, c. 1993, Vintage International Paperbacks.
  2. Wendy M. Wright, Babette's Feast: A Religious Film, Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 1, No. 2 October 1997
  3. Karen Blixen, Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard, "The Diver," "Babette's Feast," "Tempests," "The Immortal Story," "The Ring" (New York: Random House; London: Michael Joseph, 1958); Skæbne-Anekdoter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1960)
  4. translated from "Der er meget, der fungerer på skrift, men når det blive overført til billeder, giver det slet ikke samme indtryk eller følelse. Alle de ændringer, jeg foretog, gjorde jeg faktisk for at være tro mod Karen Blixens."
  5. Mørch, Karin, Gabriel's Gæstebud: Portrait af en Filmmager, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, (2008) p.410
  6. Piil, Morten, Bodil Kjer Danske Filmskuespillere, Gyldendal, (2001), pg 230-235
  7. "Jarl Kulle", Filmography, Ingmar Bergman Foundation, ingmarbergman.se, retrieved 28-05-2009
  8. "Bibi Andersson", Filmography, Ingmar Bergman Foundation, ingmarbergman.se, retrieved 28-05-2009


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