Babette’s Feast

Gabriel Axel (1918-2014)

By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006

God and abstinence 

French Babette was once a celebrated chef at a fine restaurant in Paris. Now she serves as maid for two pious old spinsters on the west coast of Jutland where no one knows her past. The two ageing Misses, Martine and Filippa, keep together a steadily decreasing flock of pious Christians, gathered by their father, the priest, many years ago. Both women carry the memories of the great love that was sacrificed in favour of God and a life of abstinence. 

The power of art and love 

Babette wins some money in the lottery and uses all of it on preparing a succulent French dinner for the small, evangelical community. The good food and wine make them all remember that it is possible to enjoy life - and love - and worship God at the same time.

Early in the film we are told that Babette has lost everything. But her sunny disposition is in sharp contrast to the self-righteous renunciation of the community of Western Jutland. Babette’s Feast is based on a story by Karen Blixen, who became known all over the world under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen. The film depicts Babette as a passionate artist in her own field - cooking. Such a true artist has enough strength to change people’s lives. 

A hit abroad 

The film manages to keep a discrete ironic distance from the pious residents of the west coast environment of the 1870s. The thrifty, timid members of the community gulp down the exotic courses, terrified that they are about to participate in a witches’ sabbath.
The film director, Gabriel Axel, was born in Denmark where he directed several films in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He went to live in France, where is married to a Frenchwoman and has lived and worked for many years. This means that the film could also be autobiographical to some extent. Babette’s Feast was a great hit, especially abroad, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1988.

Stéphane Audran in Babettes Feast. Photo: Peter Gabriel. ©Nordisk Film. 105 min. Manuscript: Gabriel Axel based on Karen Blixens short story Babettes Gæstebud (1950). Producent: Panorama.

Did you know?

Source: Ib Bondebjerg, Jesper Andersen og Peter Schepelern (red.): Dansk Film 1972-97, s. 352, Munksgaard-Rosinante.

When director Gabriel Axel was to apply for funding for Babette's Feast, he ran into problems with one of the Film Institute's board members. The person thought that in order to reduce the use of foreign language in the film, the Swedish general had to be replaced with a soldier from Næstved. However, it ended with the general being in the film - played by swedish actor Jarl Kulle.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Film, 2006

In the 1800s, the French Chef Babette had to flee from her homeland. As unfortunate fate would have it, she ended up as a servant for two elderly ladies in a small evangelical fishing village, where she endured rather than thrived. One day she wins the lottery and insists on spending the money on a large, sumptuous feast which will demonstrate her artistry in her field. She is an artist and seducer that can gild the event with her exotic, sensory culinary talent. The tragic and comic aspect is that her guests are concerned about her talents, which they consider sinful and therefore refuse.
Karen Blixen’s novel is delivered by Gabriel Axel in a number of contrasting character portrayals, given a light touch. The characters’ stupidity is relentlessly expressed, but so too is the suppressed longing and dreams that the delights open them to.

The melancholy in the film is a large part of its charm, but the comedy director, as well as the gourmet Gabriel Axel, does not deny it. Humour takes its place at the table, the food plays a central role in the story and the director, with infectious enthusiasm, has reconstructed real turtle soup, Blinis Demidoff and similar delicacies.
Stéphane Audran is outstanding as the mysterious, generous stranger, and the ample Danish ladies Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel are exceptional in their roles; the charmer Jarl Kulle is the film’s gallant element. Despite the fact that the film about Babette cannot seriously measure up against the literary version, the film leaves an undeniable aroma and taste of Blixen’s virtuoso storytelling artistry.


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