The delectable "Babette's Feast" (at Laemmle's Royal in West Los Angeles) is a fable told with passion, intelligence and sumptuousness. Although it certainly has a feast at its center, it would be a mistake to think that its tribute is intended only for great cooks. No, it's a deep reverence to all great artists--whether they make books, bowls or ballets, baskets, quilts, songs, poems, paintings . . . or films.
Like Isak Dinesen who wrote the original story, Gabriel Axel, its superb screenwriter-director, is a Dane and a natural-born storyteller. His film unfolds with the ease of thread unspooling, an infectious story with grace enough to appreciate both austerity and open-handedness--although you may guess from the climactic feast just where Axel and Dinesen stand on the subject of austerity. The film's single, singing point is that art must find its release; fetter it any way you can, it will rise triumphantly.
As the film begins, we accompany a pair of abstemious, still lovely elderly sisters on their Christian rounds, tending to the remnants of their prophet-father's Lutheran flock. Oddly enough, in this tiny Jutland fishing village and in their ruthlessly simple household, they have a French servant, Babette (Stephane Audran). And with the question of Babette we move into the sort of deft story-within-a-story digression that is a Dinesen trademark.
To learn about Babette, we must first visit the sisters in the bloom of their youth. First to savor that bloom is a romantic French tenor, Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont). Hearing Philippa's exquisite voice in church, Papin tries to sweep her off her feet, using no less than one of "Don Giovanni's" seduction duets as his vehicle. Alas, its fervor only unsettles the unworldly young woman. Rebuffed, the Frenchman leaves, but his memory of the angelic blond sisters never fades.
Exhausted and storm-blown, Babette arrives as a virtual gift from Papin 35 years later. It is his letter that introduces her as a survivor of the reprisals following the 1871 Paris Communard uprising, during which she has lost her husband and son. Hoping that she might find refuge in Denmark, Papin mentions, in passing, that Babette "can cook." It is like saying that Auguste Renoir "paints some."
But cook she does, asking no salary, only her board and room, for the next 14 years. She even becomes adept at preparing the orangy-brown codfish-and-ale-bread soup that seems to be their staple meal.
Papin is not the last man to break his heart over the sisters in their youth. A brash young cavalry officer, Lorens Lowenhielm, who arrives the following year is equally enchanted, this time by Martina, but he has no better luck. Lowenhielm's reappearance, too, will be crucial to the story.
Like good tale-spinners, Axel/Dinesen move to the story's triumphant finale with guileless sleight-of-hand. We know from the title of the film \o7 what\f7 Babette will produce; but there's a sort of unabashed, lovely disingenuousness to the way they pave the way for this miracle.
Through it all, director Axel guides his cast delicately. The sisters' sweet piety is never cloying, it is the breath and blood of their delicate, aging little band. Of all these gray little spirits, the tiny birdlike Solveig (Else Petersen) is the most memorable. (Two Danish stars, Birgitte Federspiel and Bodil Kjer, play the older Martina and Philippa, respectively. You may remember Federspiel's face from Carl Dreyer's 1955 "Ordet.")
While she adjusts to the village and its ways, Audran's Babette remains composed and mysterious; as she is taught how to prepare these cherished, horrible dishes, her only reaction is a barely perceptible widening of her eyes. Babette may look thoughtfully at the spring lamb who walks by her kitchen window at one point, but Axel is far too subtle to underline the moment for us. As for Audran, her artistry seems the equal of Babette's; they own the film with an air of pride and quiet recognition.
In the same way that the characters teeter between repression and release, Axel gives us lingering jolts of sensuality to balance the village's starkness, its flowerless yards. (He also sets that village under a dark blue bowl of a night sky, with every star imaginable at work to give the story an almost fairy-tale feel.) Henning Kristiansen's rich camera work and Sven Wichman's production design highlight opulent wallpaper murals and marbled wainscotting; there are creams and pale blues and golds of the aristocratic officer's family estate. Axel feeds our eyes the way his staging of the famous feast--cinema's most seductive food sequence, bar none--movingly satisfies our appetites.
At the feast, the worldly, now-Gen. Lowenhielm is brought back in the role of a critic, as it were--the one person present who savors and appreciates its every nuance. It may be one of the film's nicest ironies that his opinion is not in the least necessary to the artist involved.