THIS IS NOT a movie about food. It is not a movie about religion either, although the story revolves around a pair of sisters who belong to a strict, Puritanical sect.
"It's true that food is important, but there's a nourishment in a spiritual sense," actress Stéphane Audran, who plays Babette, says in the 2012 interview on this new Criterion edition.
It is "a film that advocates love from start to finish," director/scriptwriter Gabriel Axel agrees in his 2013 interview. For him, the most important thing was to capture Karen Blixen's voice.
Who is Karen Blixen? She is the woman who wrote the story published in 1950 under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Axel says the charming fable was recommended by his wife. But, when he tried to get financing for making it, he was roundly turned down.
It took over 15 years - and seven Oscar wins for a movie about Dinesen, "Out of Africa," (1985) - before producers agreed to finance "Babette's Feast." Shot in Jutland in Denmark, it became an Oscar winner for 1988 Best Foreign Film and just about every other classy international award that year.
The story takes place in a bleak coastal village, where two aging sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Fillipa (Bodil Kjer), care for the remainder of their minister father's elderly and quarrelsome followers. Both were beauties in their younger years, and, through flashbacks, we see how both gave up marriage opportunities to stay with their father.
Skip ahead 35 years and we find the minister has passed on. One evening, a woman appears at the door with a letter from one of the former suitors. Babette is a refugee from the French civil war (Hello, fans of "Les Misérables," 2012); she needs a home. Would the ladies consider taking her on as a maid?
They do and, soon, Babette is cleaning and cooking. This goes on for more than 10 years until the day comes when the sisters plan to celebrate what would have been their father's 100th birthday - and Babette wins the French lottery, 10,000 francs. Certain the woman who has grown to be an irreplaceable friend will now leave, they agree to let Babette use her winnings to put on the birthday feast as a thank you for their kindness.
Still, Martine, Fillipa, and the disciples fear they may be heading into a witch's Sabbath as Babette's exotic supplies arrive. But a promise is a promise, and to this symbolic Last Supper, they must go. That's where the not-to-be-missed culmination of the tale takes place.
Criterion presents "Babette's Feast" on Blu-ray using a new 2K digital transfer and it looks sublime. Axel tells us he was, "inspired by Vermeer's palette ... all the colors of the earth ... with nothing to distract from what was essential." Color is rich and varied, gradually shifting from a soft gray and blue palette to rich jewel colors as the feast takes place. Detail and film grain are perfect for this production.
The multilingual soundtrack - Danish and French with English subtitles - has been upgraded to a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Dialogue, music and score come through cleanly with a reasonable amount of range.
In addition to the interviews, the disc provides a 90-minute, 1995 documentary, "Karen Blixen - Story Teller." "Table Scraps" tell us about making and filming the feast. In her interview, Audran describes how it was also prepared and served during the film's promotional tour and Oscar campaign. Meals in New York and Los Angeles were sublime. "Americans like to get it right," she says.
"An Artist of the Everyday" presents a 2013 interview with sociology professor Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, about the importance of "cuisine" to the French identity and to "Babette's Feast." Criterion has also packed in a 64 page booklet with an essay by Mark Le Fanu and Blixen's original story.
No matter the nationality, from America to Denmark, viewers share a profound reaction to "Babette's Feast," Axel tells us.
He is right. This is a loving tribute to anyone who has experienced some ups and downs in their life, and brings something new with each viewing. Don't miss it.
-- Kay Reynolds