Thursday, 10 April 2014

"Babette's Feast" on BLU RAY – A Review Of The 1987 Danish Film...

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"…Love Shall Unite Us…" – Babette's Feast on BLU RAY

It’s September 1871 in a remote part of Jutland in Denmark – and on a rain-sodden night - a young French woman dressed in hooded garb knocks on the door of elderly sisters Martine and Filippa. The serenely beautiful ladies live frugally and quietly in tiny houses high above the cliffs in a deeply Christian Community – generously feeding the elderly of the flock every single day with hot food culled from their basic cooking skills.

The woman is Babette Hersant – once a worshipped culinary chef in Café Anglais in Paris - and she bears a letter from an elderly French Opera Singer called Achille Papin. He has sent Babette to Denmark by boat to escape political rioting in the capitol city that has robbed her of everything including a husband. Papin visited the sisters when they were youthful beauties many decades back – and lost his heart to Filippa’s angelic voice (words from a duet they sing in a clinch together titles this review). But because of fear and entrenched Christian beliefs – Filippa could not bear what their burgeoning love was doing to her soul – so she had her Pastor father send him away (and silence his singing). But Papin remembered her kindness too – so he has sent the broken Babette into their care.

14 years pass and Babette has now worked her way into the hearts of the kindly sisters, the local grocer and even the fishermen who can’t pass off rancid meat or old fish on the food-knowledgeable Babette.  She even knows where the herbs are on the wild grass stretches that overlook the Sea.

Babette’s only link with France is a lottery ticket a kind relative keeps renewing for her year after year. And one day she gets a letter – she’s won 10,000 Francs. To their astonishment Babette doesn’t want to squander the money on clothes or fine things – but instead payback their kindness by cooking the austere community a proper French Dinner in honour of their Pastor Father whose anniversary is approaching. And Babette wants to do it her way. The sisters agree but have no idea of the opulence that is going to invade their linen-covered table and remain tearfully terrified of its corruptive nature. But great wine, champagne, real turtle soup, sumptuous cooking and divine food mellow the bickering and tetchy elderly community and bring about a deep healing – even a spiritual renaissance of sorts…

Released in the summer of 1987 and directed by Gabriel Axel (a Danish language movie with English subtitles) – the film is based on a story by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) and its full title is "Karen Blixen's Babette's Gaestebud". It was Denmark’s first Oscar Win for a foreign language film (also took the BAFTA).

Special mention should be made of the 'young' sisters whose back-story of 'lost love' gives the film its beating heart. A dashing Hussar called Lorens Lowenhielm is stationed in a Garrison Town living a life of tedium and gambling. His father feels he needs to be 'sent away' – so ships the blue-uniformed young man off to his aunt in Norre Vosburg in Jutland. One afternoon out of horseback he sees his redemption from creditor notes and parental lectures – the beautiful young Martine. He immediately tries to woe both her and the pious community who surrender her at every moment – but soon becomes painfully aware that his needs for luxury and easy living far outweigh his needs for Martine. So Lorens leaves and marries a countess with wealth and position. But he has of course made the mistake of a lifetime.

Now an old man but still a dashing officer – he is invited to the feast – and recognizes the extraordinary cooking skills from a past encounter in Paris (like a warm glow from the past). But more than that – he fills old Martine’s heart with joy by telling her that he has always loved her – and not even the physicality of years or body will keep them apart spiritually (his declaration of love to her at the end is one of the loveliest pieces of dialogue in cinema).

I wish I could say the Artificial Eye BLU RAY is a triumph – far from it. Despite its BFI logo – the print has specs of dirt on it, lines showing on occasion and a fair amount of natural fuzzy grain. It does look cleaned up in some places – beautiful even – but the BLU RAY improvement is slight. It’s defaulted to 1.85:1 so fills the entire screen but there’s no getting away from the fact that its good rather than great – which given the sumptuous nature of the feast – is so disappointing (docked a star for that).  As I say – it does look shockingly clean in places – but anyone expecting frame-by-frame clean up can look elsewhere.

There is a short interview in French with Stephane Audran who is intensely proud of the ‘masterpiece’ and Subtitles are Danish, Swedish, French and English.

"Babette's Feast" is a gentle film – slow and even pious to a point of being farcical. But the good-humour and warmth will etch its way into your heart – and after you witness the feast – be prepared to raid the cookie jars in your kitchen with a passion.

As young Papin's heart soars and he tells young Filippa she has 'the voice of joy' – there are moments in "Babette's Feast" when you are in complete lip-smacking agreement with the rotund Frenchman. A beautiful life-affirming film and then some…

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