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Among the many films that center on food at the end of the twentieth century, Babette's Feast (Babettes Gaestebud) stands out for its reach and for the subtlety of its sensuality. For this film depicts far more than food and foodways; it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives. Paradoxically, this Danish film tells an exemplary tale of French cuisine. Its portrayal of a French cook far from France evokes the French culinary landscape even more than the Danish countryside where it is set.
Surely it is appropriate that the cinema supply the iconic culinary text of the twentieth century. Film captures, as a photograph cannot, the interactive process that culinary art requires. More immediately than print and like cuisine itself, film conveys a sensory awareness that embraces the viewer as the more intellectual medium cannot. Just as the written recipe can only suggest the sensory, so words inevitably fail to convey the comprehensive, all-enveloping sensuality of taste. The immediacy achieved by the moving narrative raises Babette's Feast to iconic status well above the short story by Isak Dinesen from which it is drawn. Through its exploitation of the sensory, the film transforms a "story from the human heart," as Dinesen puts it in the narrative frame of the original story, into an emblem of French culinary culture.
Brought to the screen in 1987 by the Danish director Gabriel Axel, Babette's Feast arguably inaugurated what the past twenty-five years or so have consecrated as a veritable cinematic genre—the food film. From the exuberantly sexual foreplay of the couple devouring a turkey leg in Tom Jones (1963) to the Taiwanese Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the fluffy paean to the senses, Chocolat (2000), with many films in between, the food film has become a staple in the cinematic larder, another sign of the salience of food in the larger culture today. We all have our favorite from this lengthy roster. Indeed, based on the sheer number of food films, it would seem that just about every group that lays claim to a cuisine now has a film to tell the world about it.
Babette's Feast shares many characteristics with other food films. First and foremost, it lovingly details the many pleasures of food, though unlike many others it does not equate the sensory with the sexual. More than others, however, and conspicuously more than Isak Dinesen's short story, it celebrates the senses. It invests cuisine—very pointedly French cuisine—with incomparable transformative powers. The spectacular repast that crowns the film conjures up a vision of spiritual well-being created by the transcendent artistry of a chef who sacrifices all for her art and, through that art, recreates her country. This restitution of place and resurrection of time makes the most powerful case yet for the intimate drama of culinary metamorphosis.— Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, "Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine"
Sun November 12, 2023, 2:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Denmark; 1987; in Danish, French, Hungarian, Swedish; 102 min
Novel: Karen Blixen, Screenplay: Gabriel Axel, Director: Gabriel Axel, Cast: Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont