Light, frothy and unfulfilling. This Danish culinary drama lacks the nutrients to sustain interest.
Danish journeyman director Gabriel Axel served up this thin arthouse stew to the Academy in 1987 and, somewhat predictably, they wolfed it down without so much as a blink.
On the menu: the cockle-warming, kitchen-based adventures of buxom and mysterious Babette (Stéphane Audran), an exile from revolution blighted Paris. As a favour to an old friend, she is hesitantly employed as a house maid by two devoutly pious sisters in their tiny Jutland community.
By strange quirk, she wins 10,000 Francs from an overseas lottery ticket, but instead of using the money to head back home, she decides to rustle up a gourmet meal to commemorate the death of the sisters' late father.
The film monitors the saintly Babette as she transforms her array of luxury ingredients into a scintillating celebration of earthly delights. But the Puritan community she’s promised to feed feel that by consuming this banquet they would be rejecting their vows of modesty and self-restraint – apparently, they’d all rather chow down on a local slurry called ale bread.
Based on a yarn by Out of Africa writer Karen Blixen, Axel’s film deals in light, homefried homilies and lingering, Vaseline-lensed shots of doddery oldsters trying to refrain from expressing their near-orgasmic delight.
The satisfyingly torpid pacing gels nicely with the story, which is direct, uncluttered and sensible. And while not up there with the likes of Tampopo or Big Night, the lengthy scenes of food preparation do make you yearn for an accompanying cookbook.
Delivering the simple message that life is short and should be enjoyed to its fullest, Axel’s film is also very much of its time. It offers an uncomfortable celebration of ’80s excess where cash loses all meaning if it’s not instantly being spent. It also gently mocks the moderation of the townsfolk, their deep-seated religion being the main source of their worldly ignorance. It’s a charming tale that’s told with admirable control, but, unlike Babette, Axel militantly sticks to tried and trusted flavours.
Films about the aged are very much ‘in’ these days, so this might have gained new relevance.
Light, frothy and sweet on the tongue, but lacking nutrition.
It’s proconsumer/anti-religious message feels a little spiteful.