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Babette's Feast (Blu-ray Review)

29 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In Swedish, Danish and French with English subtitles.
Stars Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle.

Way up on my lifetime list of personal dubious distinctions is the dreadful fact that I twice missed the opportunity to enjoy the feast portrayed in this hugely deserving Oscar-winner back when Orion Classics’ apparently deep pockets hosted a promotional tie-in banquet of the very same feast for members of the movie press. And believe me, you did not find any of these “eats” at any chain restaurant; even the grapes here look like Olympics hopefuls.

How could this have happened beyond the fact that I had a still fairly newborn and free nights weren’t that plentiful? Well, in New York City, I passed on the invitation because my clueless self had not yet seen the picture and, as a result, the spread — much less realizing that Feast would eventually end up on my topmost-rung of 1980s movies along with the companion masterpiece it, alas, had to beat for the year’s foreign-language award: Louis Malle’s shattering Au revior, les enfantes. Then in Washington, D.C., I wasn’t even invited to the proceedings — but only because the PR folks mistakenly thought I had taken part in the New York predecessor. According to a food-loving colleague who somehow got to attend both, the New York meal was the greatest of his life and the D.C. version only slightly less so (apparently, it was a little saltier).

The on-screen version of this culinary bounty ends up getting similar reviews from its own participants — but not until its rigidly religious Dane invitees get loosened up a little by spirits of multiple kinds and also by following the lead of a visiting Swedish general (this is a Danish film of a short story originally set in Norway) who ends up on the guest list and more or less educates the clueless parishioners about the worldly glories of what they’re ingesting.

Writer/director Gabriel Axel, adapting the Karen Blixen/aka Isak Dinesen literary source, pokes a little gentle fun at the guests’ provincialism. Yet for the most part, he treats them with affection because this is one affectionate movie. Though, this said, it is interesting to hear sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, in one of many Criterion extras here, note that she witnessed not infrequent laughter from the audience at an American showing — whereupon many counterparts at a French screening she attended as well were heard crying at times. Well, maybe it takes a French audience to fully appreciate the spiritual dimension of French cuisine done to perfection.

The event comes to be because two sisters in the late 19th century have hired a French housekeeper to run their home in a fishing village whose secular pursuits are about as spare as its physical surroundings (though you have to say that the seaside visuals here aren’t too shabby). Middle-aged and never married despite having been lookers in their youth, the sisters have eschewed romance by a) buying into their late pastor father’s pieties (which did engender an admirable calling for local care-giving); and b) because the suitors they did have weren’t ideal choices. The means by which their compatible servant is able to host this break-the-bank bash (assuming a bash can be largely solemn) falls into spoiler territory — as do the expatriate employee’s motivations for wanting to host it in the first place. Suffice it to say that the movie’s set-up and backstories are almost as enjoyable as the extended meal sequence itself, leaving one satisfied and feeling un-bloated (which is how my friend described himself after concluding the Orion hosts’ promotional meal). Somehow, one senses that concession sales were likely down for theaters playing the film. Snowcaps and Goobers just wouldn’t cut it in this atmosphere.

Though this glorious movie can stand on its own without cineaste star power, it’s impossible to deny three casting kicks that prove surprising, even though filmmaker Axel likely knew the art house aces he had up his sleeve. French filmic force Stephane Audran (once the wife of and frequent collaborator with Claude Chabrol) plays chef Babette, and this by itself might have been enough, given the delight in seeing this very formidable actress take a vacation from “suspense mode.” But in addition, one of the two sisters is played by Birgitte Federspiel, whose previously had a key role as the pregnant wife in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, which has always been one of my ten favorite movies of all time (btw, some of Feast’s own compositions are on the Dreyer side). And in the emotionally important role as the general, we get Sweden’s Jarl Kulle — a longtime vet of Ingmar Bergman films from Smiles of a Summer Night (and even before) to Fanny and Alexander. I never thought a movie would make me say, “Hey, there’s good old Jarl Kulle,” but this one does.

The bonus extras include the original short story originally published in the Ladies Home Journal, my factoid-of-the-week to be sure. We also get a 1995 documentary on Blixen/Dinesen; new interviews with Axel and Audran; a visual essay by Michael Almereyda; a good written essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu; and a new 2K digital restoration, which conforms to my memories of how this quietly overwhelming masterpiece looked in theaters. Bravo.

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