I saw the Danish and Oscar winning film Babette’s Feast when it first came out in 1987.
The feast, especially those little quails and their reincarnation – tiny wizened heads and feet – perfectly positioned for aesthetic impact inside those molds of pastry, and the story of the mysterious Parisian in exile played by the actress Stephane Audran, left a lasting impression on me.I can’t say why that was, especially when I was only 26, but there you go. That and Breaking the Waves by Lars von Trier are two films that just implanted themselves after watching them.
So when I saw Babette’s Feast stacked in the DVD rack in the library this week, I snatched it up, eagerly looking forward to seeing how I felt about it after all these years, 28 years later to be exact.
The film’s director, Gabriel Axel, died in his sleep in 2014 in Copenhagen at the age of 95. Reward for a life well lived perhaps. Prior to writing the screenplay, everyone in France and Denmark thought he was crazy for even considering turning such a story into a film. Who wants to see a film about old maids whose futures were dashed by their authoritarian father, the ragtag Lutheran cult he led on a desolate island, a Parisian exile, and food? It was hard for most to visualize how that plot could find an audience.
The idea for the film first arose when Axel’s wife read the short story, Babette’s Feast, written by the Danish writer Karen Blixen. Blixen wrote under a variety of pen names but used Isak Dinesen, (Dinesen being her maiden name), when she wrote Babette’s Feast.
Blixen became most famous for her book, Out of Africa, (film released in 1985).
She had an incredible life, and did an amazing job of creating her legend. She married her second cousin, Baron Bror Blixen, after a relationship with Bror’s brother failed. Together, they opened a coffee plantation in Kenya backed by family money which she ran. There’s now a Karen Blixen museum outside Nairobi on the estate they lived at in the suburb with her name.
Not more than a year into the marriage she was infected with syphilis (or allegedly so) from her husband, a Swede, who made his living as a big game hunter. Although she recovered with treatment, it was a life-long humiliation. The coffee plantation eventually failed as did the marriage and she returned in her mid-40s to Denmark, back to Rungstedlund, her family’s estate where she lived for the rest of her life. She died at 77 years of age of malnutrition resulting from Anorexia Nervosa.
Blixen, said a critic, was probably as lost as Babette was when she first returned to Denmark after living for more than two decades in Africa.
It wasn’t until Out of Africa’s success, that Gabriel Axel was able to get someone to listen to him about his desire to bring his script of her short story to life and he finally received some funding from the Danish government 15 years after his initial commitment to the project.
Watching it again and being able to see the updated interviews with Axel, hearing how everything on the set seemed “charmed” according to the actress who played Babette, and to get the help of a food critic explain why this movie so compellingly reveals the legend that has become French Cuisine including food’s ability to transform, was so much richer this time around.
After all, I have my own nuanced understanding of life’s disappointments to add yet another invisible layer.
If you get a chance, and you love Danish films, put your library card to use and borrow it. But I’ll understand if it’s just not your thing.
By the way, that Quail dish is called Cailles en Sarcophage.