The title Babette's Feast doesn't immediately jump out at me as a film I need to see immediately, but to know this Danish film bested Au Revoir Les Enfants (read my Blu-ray review here) at the 1988 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film certainly causes me to change my mind. While I wouldn't say director Gabriel Axel's film is better than Malle's Enfants, which is a personal all-timer of mine, but it is a multi-layered story with drama in corners you can't expect heading in.
Adapted from the 1950 short story of the same name (read it here) by Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Denisen who also wrote the story that inspired Out of Africa), the film takes place in a small village in 19th century Denmark, a town Denisen described as a "child's toy-town of little wooden pieces". The story centers on two sisters who grew up here under the watchful eye of their father, a local pastor whose flock is almost a singular religion unto itself.
Despite their beauty and the ogling eyes of would-be suitors, the girls remain with their father until his death, resigned to grow old with those around them. Years go by until one day a knock comes to their door, on the other side is Babette (Stéphane Audran), a tall French woman seeking refuge after fleeing from the civil war that has broken out in Paris. She offers her services as a maid, housekeeper, whatever they need for no charge, only housing. They accept.
Babette becomes almost an extended member of the household and is accepted in the small village to the point the two sisters could hardly imagine life without her. At just such a time Babette falls into some good fortune, which is when she asks to repay the sisters' kindness by cooking a feast to commemorate what would have been their father's 100th birthday. Offering a real French feast, the sisters reluctantly accept, nervous what that may mean and you will be pleasantly surprised to learn not even you can anticipate how many layers of thematic depth one meal can offer in a film.
To watch the features on Criterion's new Blu-ray release you'll hear it said that Babette's Feast isn't about food or religion, it's about love. I don't think anyone will watch and actually think it's really about food, but to entirely dismiss religion's role in the narrative is to be a little short-sided in my opinion. Yes, it's about love, but it's about love despite our differences, religion included. I also believe it's about happiness and about living life to its fullest and sharing our happiness with others and the joy that comes as a result. You can boil this down to love on its own, but not without acknowledging everything that goes into it.
I already linked to Denisen's story above, but Criterion also includes it in their 69-page booklet and you'll be amazed at how well it compliments the film, not just from a narrative structure but in the overall feeling and imagery the story evokes, a lot of this is due to the performances, which are great all around from Audran as Babette and Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel as the sisters and certainly Jarl Kulle (Fanny and Alexander) as Gen. Lorens Löwenhielm whose contribution to the feast is ever so pivotal.
However, as you'll learn by watching the included supplemental features, there was a lot more that went into the film's production design, beyond the fact all the delicacies presented in the film during the feast were the actual items, but Axel's inspiration for the production design ranged from the blueish-gray work of Danish painter Vilhem Hammershoi to the work of Johannes Vermeer and fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld provided the costume designs.
Features on the disc where this information will be pulled, and much more, include new interviews with Axel and Audran and a visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda. You'll also get a deeper understanding of Karen Blixen in a feature titled "Karen Blisen - Storyteller". I wasn't particularly interested in the interview with Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, a sociologist examining the significance of cuisine in French culture, but they all can't be winners.
The image is a new 2K digital restoration and, while the image is pretty cold, Henning Kristiansen's cinematography is given some great moments to shine.
Overall this is a hard one to figure out just how exactly to offer up a recommendation. If you like it you will get that warm bath, comforting feeling while watching. It's a story that moves you on a human level and gives you that desire to want to do good and share your good fortune with others. At the same time, it doesn't feel like an absolute "must" despite the fact it's a film difficult not to appreciate and nearly impossible not to enjoy.