The Criterion Collection 665
When Babette’s Feast comes up in casual conversation, most people will say it's the ultimate film about food, but I think it's really about love and the human spirit. Food and spirit merge during the meal that Babette prepares, and it manifests itself as love for all mankind.
The story is told as a fable, with an effective voice narration being used at times. In early- to mid-19th-century Demark, on the foreboding coast of Jutland, two sisters live with their minister father. Both of them are exceedingly beautiful and have many suitors, but their father discourages them and sends them away. In spite of the odds, each sister manages to make contact with one special man, even though they are not relationships to be consummated.
Martine (Vibeke Hastrup, later played as an old woman by Birgitte Federspiel) catches the eye of Lieutenant Lorens Löwenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson, later played as a general by Jarl Kulle) who cannot muster the courage to speak his heart. Filippa (Hanne Stensgaard, later played as an old woman by Bodil Kjer) catches both the eye and ear of traveling French opera star Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont), who gives her singing lessons and proclaims that she will be the Zerlina everyone has always wanted to hear in Mozart's Don Giovanni. But when Papin tries to kiss Filippa, she suddenly tells her father that she doesn't want any more singing lessons. Broken hearted, Papin leaves Jutland and returns to Paris.
Forward to later in the 19th century. Their father having died, the two women, still beautiful as older women, live their meager existence while trying to help those even poorer than themselves. One rainy night there's a knocking on the door, and they open it to find a tattered Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran) on the doorstep bearing a letter from Papin. He tells of Babette's ordeals during the revolution in France and asks that the two women give her sanctuary. Almost as an afterthought, he says that she can cook.
The sisters take Babette in, and she proves to improve the quality of their food while saving money. Then one day a letter arrives for Babette, informing her that she has won the French lottery of 10,000 francs! The 100th birthday of Martine and Filippa's pastor father is coming up, and Babette offers to celebrate it by cooking a real French dinner for the sisters and the ten guests they will invite -- at her expense! (Because of the number 12 and the dinner, many have compared Babette to Christ.) Babette's feast turns into an affair that alters everyone's life, but telling more would spoil the enjoyment of those who have not seen this remarkable film.
They, and the old friends who know it well, will discover that Criterion has done its usual excellent job in transferring it to Blu-ray. The colors are muted but still very rich. Definition is superb, as is shadow detail and contrast. There are some beautiful senior-citizen faces in this movie, and the camera treats them lovingly with just enough detail and no harshness. The food is photographed with the same loving touch. The audio, already a surround soundtrack in the original film, has been transferred to DTS-HD Master Audio with care; the sound is all one could ask for with this particular small-scale film.
The unseen hero of the feast is Karen Blixen, the flamboyant author who wrote Babette's Feast, writing as Isak Dinesen in the June, 1950 Ladies' Home Journal. Criterion has provided the complete story in the set's booklet, and included two extras on the disc about the famous writer -- Karen Blixen: Storyteller, a 1995 documentary; and a visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda. Other ancillary material includes a featurette on the significance of cuisine in French culture, an interview with Audran, and an interview with director Gabriel Axel.
Babette's Feast, which won an Oscar in 1988 for Best Foreign Film, is one of the biggest small delights of cinema and has received a splendid presentation from the Criterion Collection. It simply has to be put on your "to do" list.
Be sure to watch for: The end of chapter 6 shows us one of Achille's singing lessons with Filippa as they sing the famous Zerlina-Don Giovanni duet. When Filippa hits her first pianissimo note, it sends chills through my spine and bears out Papin's recognition of her as a unique talent.
. . . Rad Bennett