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'Babette's Feast'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 08, 1988


Gabriel Axel
Stephane Audran;
Jean-Philippe Lafont;
Jarl Kulle;
Bibi Andersson
Not rated
Foreign Film

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"Babette's Feast" is about edible art -- Art with a capital A -- a tour de force for the taste buds laid down before neither gourmets nor gourmands, but a sect of gruel-eating puritans. In this piquant Danish drama, an exiled artist confronts the uneducated palate, awakening interest if not applause.

"Babette's Feast," a precise and elegant piece, is adapted from Isak Dinesen's short story by director Gabriel Axel, a fellow Dane who, like Dinesen, found inspiration elsewhere. Axel is uniquely suited to this story of a culinary genius who spends 14 years in Jutland smoking cod. And then one day she stuns the taciturn Jutlanders by preparing a mighty feast.

French actress Ste'phane Audran is perfection as the enigmatic Parisian Babette, who flees the Communard uprising in 1871 and is taken in by two sisters, Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), the leaders of a small Danish sect. Her handsome face, her voice like a rich sauce and her strong, healthy stride are set against the prettiness and primness of the older but still angelically beautiful Martina. But like the gifted singer Philippa, Babette possesses a great talent denied.

On one plane, this is a story of waste, a quiet debate on the artist's right to hoard her God-given talents, to give them freely or simply to sell them and so spend them for adoring crowds. A girl when we meet her, Philippa is discovered by a famous opera singer, Achille (Jean-Philippe Lafont), who is visiting Jutland. With the permission of her father the Vicar, Achille trains her voice, the better to praise God. She later rejects Achille's underlying plan to make her the greatest diva in the world.

While practicing with him, Philippa surprises herself with her emotional reaction to their romantic duet from "Don Giovanni." As the song goes, "I am afraid of my own joy." Likewise her sister rejects a dashing cavalry officer, Lo wenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson), to devote herself to her father's congregation.

Thirty-five years pass, Babette arrives, and the endearing sisters are giving their special talents to their barren world. The sisters may be pious, but they are never cold. Though poor, they take the stranger in; though fasting, they risk the wrath of the Almighty by allowing her the feast. The sisters and the church members agree to eat the food, but not to enjoy or praise it. Only Lo wenhielm, who returns a decorated general, tastes the transcendence of the seven-course meal. For the others, it is merely not-cod. And then the miracle occurs, when these stern old puritans are seduced by the baba au rhum and the champagne (which is mistaken for lemonade).

Babette is a maestro, a Rubinstein of cuisine. The kitchen is her orchestra, the spoon her baton. As she cooks, she savors the wine knowledgeably, but never the incredible food. Such a shame, we think. And what a waste, we think about Babette, about them all. But Babette has cooked her masterwork, flavoring what once was only craftsmanship with sacrifice and love.

This deceptively modest story, with its quiet colors and contemplative characters, actually teems with contrasts and subtle dynamics. The eternal burn of the artist vies with the cold fire of the puritan's denial. Serious as it all sounds, Axel and his fine cast interpret Dinesen's ironic original with great charm and gentle comedy. The point, perhaps, is thou art what thou eat.

Babette's Feast, at the Key, is in Danish with subtitles. It is unrated, but is suitable for all audiences.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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