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‘Babette’s Feast’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 08, 1988


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

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When gourmet chef Babette does her thing, we're talking quail stuffed with truffles and foie gras, turtle soup, baba au rhum, Veuve Clicquot . . . . This banquet is the glorious finale of Gabriel Axel's "Babette's Feast," his handsome, understated adaptation of the Isak Dinesen short story.

The meal helps everything. Its hedonistic delights loosen up the sensually uptight Danes Babette (an elegant Ste'phane Audran) is feeding. And you breathe easier because life in this movie has been excruciatingly ascetic. With blinis Demidoff and sherry now flooding your hungering eyes, you -- like the appreciative dinner guests -- suddenly look fondly upon everything that's gone before.

And there's a whole lot of that. Dinesen's story, an episodic meander with potentially stolid cinematic results, is suffused with cinematographer Henning Kristiansen's beautiful compositions and captured light, and warmed by Axel's affinity for actors and details (he also scripted).

In an intricate scenario, a pastor (Pouel Kern) keeps beautiful daughters Philippa (Hanne Stensgard) and Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) on the strict and narrow. When French opera singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) promises vocal student Philippa the Paris bigtime -- and correspondingly when cavalry officer Lorens Lo wenhielm gets too close to Martina -- Dad puts the Protestant nix on everything.

The old man finally dies but the daughters remain cloistered and unmarried, spending their dwindling resources keeping open house for the poor congregation.

Enter Babette (significantly, a friend of the opera singer and later to be known to Lo wenhielm) 35 years later. Escaping the riotous Paris Commune of 1871, she begs the now-aged sisters (now Bodil Kjer as Philippa, and Birgitte Federspiel) to lodge her in return for housekeeping. When she wins 10,000 francs in the lottery, she spends it all on one last magnificent dinner. It takes dinner guest (and now-renaissance man) Lo wenhielm (Jarl Kulle) to realize that the repast is the expression of a genius, a chef whose food he used to eat at the fanciest restaurant in Paris. Of course Babette is that chef.

The feast is Babette's last hurrah. She takes the palate as seriously as the sisters the soul. As we watch this magnificence being eaten we are seeing Babette's substance consumed. It is a willing and wonderful sacrifice.

BABETTE'S FEAST (Unrated) -- In Danish and French with subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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