Film review: Babette's Feast

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 1988 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Oscar-winner for 1987 as best foreign-language film, "Babette's Feast" is indeed a feast for the eyes, ears and mind.

Like last year's "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," "Babette's Feast" has as its strengths a very strong narrative storyline and rich characters. These are the elements that make for the best movies, and they are unfortunately those that are most often missing in modern films.

And what a story it is, about a small, bleak Danish community transformed by the title character for one brief, exquisite evening. And the events that lead up to that evening are most engaging.

Though initially introduced at the beginning of the film, Babette doesn't become a viable character until quite late in the story. The focus here is on two sisters, Philippa and Martina, who live their long lives together as matrons in a small Danish town.

Their father is the local pastor, piously governing his family with strong religious values, teaching them to let their faith exclusively envelop their lives. The father is stern, perhaps even quietly cruel as he keeps his daughters beside him to help him serve his tiny flock.

He gently, but forcibly, keeps the girls under his thumb. This is shown with great force when two men come into the daughters' respective lives and threaten to disrupt the enforced harmony of their household. Eventually the men give up trying to woo them, sadly resolved that these young women will never be free of their father's will.

That proves to be more true than one might think when, after the father passes away, the two women continue to live solitary lives, now serving the needs of the poor and invalid around them.

Many years later, the two former suitors reappear, forcing the sisters to reflect upon their lives. And one of those former suitors also brings them Babette, who becomes their servant. Who she is and how she repays the sisters for 14 years of kindness leads to the film's resolution and involves an exquisite French seven-course meal that is prepared in great detail, leading to a cathartic release for all the principals.

Director Gabriel Axel, who also wrote the screenplay from an Isak Dinesen short story, marvelously brings all the elements together. And rather than rely on heavy makeup for young actors to age several decades he has cast different young and older actors for the same characters. It's a risky touch, but it works perfectly, and even the resemblances between old and young actors playing the same part are remarkable.

"Babette's Feast" is a glorious observation of art in its many forms, of love and faith, and it is one of those rare films that gets over all too soon.

It is also rated G, a rarity in and of itself these days.