30 April 2021

Gabriel Axel's Babettes Gæstebud | Babette's Feast (1987)

An article by Cynthia Green in 'Jstor Daily', 17 January 2018, titled 'The Writer Behind Out of Africa' and concerning the film adaptation of her short story' Babettes Gæstebud' (1958) is subtitled 'For Karen Blixen [...] role, purpose, fate and destiny are intertwined.' This is quite evident from this austere, understated, moving film of rigidity, painful self-control, acceptance of fate and lost life.

The nineteenth-century setting is a tiny village on the west coast of Jutland, where the sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) live with their authoritarian, possessive monster of a Lutheran pastor father. They never marry, but after their father is dead – thirty-five years after they feel forced to reject a succession of suitors – they accept, free of charge, the young French woman Babette (Stéphane Audran) fleeing from the civil war as housekeeper and cook.

For fifteen years Babette dutifully works for them serving humble fare as befits the Lutheran austerity of her environment. But a friend in Paris has been regularly buying her a lottery ticket, and she wins 10,000 francs. But, unbeknown to the sisters, her plan is not to return to Paris but to celebrate the late pastor's hundredth anniversary by inviting twelve guests to a remarkable feast at the house. This involves having very expensive food and drink brought in from Paris. The sisters are alarmed by such ostentation, but it's too late for them to go back on it.

The guests' sensibilities initially prevent them from commenting on the luxury of all the courses, the champagne and fine wine, although one of the guests is a former suitor of Martine's: the now General Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle), man of the world and connoisseur of food and wine. Unlike the religiously constipated guests, he makes many comments on the fare and declares that the only time he has eaten so well was at the highly reputed Café Anglais in Paris. The drink obviously helping, the other guests slowly overcome their reluctance to enjoy the meal from hell and there is reconciliation.

The sisters had been expecting Babette to leave for Paris on the proceeds of her lottery win, but she isn't going anywhere. She no longer has any attachments to Paris and all her winnings have been spent on the feast: in her former life, she was head cook at the Café Anglais. Philippa says she'll be a great artist in paradise and enchant the angels.

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