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Daniel Neman: 'Babette's Feast' still glorious after 35 years

Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Variety Menu

The first time I watched “Babette’s Feast,” I was a movie critic. The second time I watched, I was a food writer.

It’s amazing what a difference a new job title and 35 years can make. The first time I saw the film, my focus was entirely on the quality of the filmmaking, which was extraordinary. When I saw it again two weeks ago, I was all about the food.

I still appreciated the filmmaking, though. You can take the boy out of the movie critic’s job, but you can never quite take the movie critic out of the boy.

Gabriel Axel’s brilliant, Academy Award-winning 1987 film is based on the short story by Isak Dinesen (herself the topic of the Oscar-winning 1985 film “Out of Africa”). Turner Classic Movies showed it during their month of Academy Award-winning films that led up to the Oscar ceremony. I taped it at the time to enjoy later.

The story is simple, and I remembered much of it: Two aging, unmarried sisters live on the desolate coast of northern Denmark in the late 1800s. Though they have little money, they hire a younger French woman, Babette, who is fleeing the terrors of the Franco-Prussian War. Daughters of the founder of a severe, Puritan-like sect, they spend their lives helping others.

Babette responds to their kindness with a quiet gratitude. And when she wins the French lottery, she determines to serve them and the remaining members of the sect a gourmet French feast. It’s the culinary opposite of the unpalatable gruel and ale-and-bread soup that make up their daily diet.

The first Danish film to win a best foreign-language Oscar, it came out during a glorious period of food-related movies. Made around the same time as “Tampopo” and “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Babette’s Feast” remains my favorite of all the food movies, though “Mostly Martha” gives it a run for its money.

It isn’t just that the acting is so strong, the cinematography so evocative, the story so sensitive. It’s the food. The food is exquisite.

 

The final act is devoted to the preparation and especially the consumption of the feast. The first course is a turtle soup, served with a particularly fine amontillado sherry. It is followed by blinis demidoff, buckwheat pancakes loaded down with sour cream and a decadent amount of caviar, paired with vintage champagne.

Next up is the star of the meal: tiny quail stuffed with foie gras and two slices of black truffle, cooked in (and partly out of) a puff pastry shell and served with a clear brown sauce. When I saw the film in the theater and that course was served, the audience let out an audible sigh.

The remaining three courses, which are less spectacular, are shown relatively quickly. An endive salad is served and quickly eaten — it’s just endive, after all. Dessert is a rum cake with candied fruits (maybe they wanted something less rich after the other courses), followed by a course of cheese and fruit, and a final serving of coffee and cognac.

The point of the film is that the feast is a gift of love, and it transforms all who partake in it. The elderly members of the sect learn to stop their petty bickering and, perhaps more importantly, they come to realize that pleasure is not to be feared. The sisters learn that men from their past kept love for them in their hearts. And Babette understands how important it is for an artist, in this case a chef, to express herself through her art.

Put in another, more pedestrian way, the movie says that food is love. The film is a love letter from the past, reaching out from 35 years ago to wrap us in its warm, enveloping glow.

If you get the chance, see it. See it again. Come for the filmmaking, but stay for the food.

©2022 STLtoday.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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