#229 Babette’s Feast
(1987, Gabriel Axel)
“Give me the chance to do my very best”
Babette’s Feast is one of very few Danish entries on the Movies You Must See list, and it’s a film that I’ve heard the name of a few times, although I’ve known nothing about it beyond it being set around a large, lavish feast. Is it any good? Well, let’s take a look.
Babette’s Feast is about two sisters living in a small village on the coast of Jutland in the 19th century. Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) are the daughters of the village pastor, who has created his own very conservative branch of Christianity. The movie tells the story of how their lives got changed forever by the introduction of two attempted suitors in their youth, and the impact this has on their lives, and how they came to employ a French woman named Babette (Stephane Audran) as their servant.
Babette’s Feast isn’t the most exciting movie in the world. Martine and Philippa are the very essence of the religious sect they ultimately end up leading, supressing all desires and pleasures in the pursuit of religious piety.
The problem is, this makes them incredibly dull characters. During their youth, there does seem to be some inner conflict when in the presence of the handsome and courteous General Loens (Gudmar Klöving / Jarl Kulle) and the slightly sleazy but fascinating French singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont), but this section ends up being rushed through within the first half hour and we move to them as rather flat adults.
This flat characterisation has a tendency to get very silly as well. For much of the movie, both sisters, as well as many residents of the village, are presented as being very grey and bland, and it’s very hard to identify with them much of the time. They don’t command attention or interest, and come across as very stereotypical.
When it gets really silly is when Babette starts putting together her feast and the villagers react with horror at everything that they seem to be presented with. It’s hard to take anybody seriously when they seem to recoil at the mere sight of some beef and begin to have weird nightmares about the feast. This fails to flesh out any character and turns them all two-dimensional, and it’s disappointing.
Babette is somewhat more interesting. She comes across as typically more mysterious, and seems to have a lot going on in her head that we don’t really know about. As a result, she’s a much more interesting character, but the sad fact is that we’re viewing her almost at a distance from the perspective of the villagers and so we don’t get to spend much time learning about her very well.
She is very likeable, but sadly, her impact on the sisters and the village is handled poorly. Quite often we’re told that she’s very special, and a major help that the sisters can’t afford to lose, but rarely is this shown beyond her doing a few small errands for them. She doesn’t seem to implement major changes in their lives until her feast rolls around, so this feels like the movie is applied too much tell and not enough show.
Babette’s Feast does make an effort to look impressive though. The village is suitably claustrophobic and isolated, and the feast itself is very vivid and stands at a stark contrast to the rather muted tones of the movie as a whole. Scenes outside the village also really bring the period setting to life, and a sequence where Philippa is taught how to sing is excellently choreographed.
It’s just a shame that the movie as a whole feels a bit of a non-entity. The plot is rather predictable and relies far too much on telling us things instead of showing them, and the characters are rather bland stereotypes, bar a few exceptions. It’s not a bad movie, just possibly an acquired taste.
Starring Ghita Nørby, Stephane Audran, Birgitte Federspiel & Bodil Kjer
Written by Karen Blixen & Gabriel Axel
Produced by Just Betzer, Bo Christensen, Benni Corzen & Pernille Siesbye
Music by Per Nørgard
Cinematography by Henning Kristiansen
Edited by Finn Henriksen
Favourite Scene: Some of the scenes with the general at the feast were pretty amusing.
Scene That Bugged Me: That bizarre dream sequence. Not sure what the point of that was.
Watch it if: You like movies that seek to make every line of dialogue poetic
Avoid it if: You don’t like watching dull religious types for two hours