Empty calo­ries

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE


Di­rected by Gabriel Axel. Star­ring Stephane Au­dran, Bir­gitte Fed­er­spiel, Bodil Kjer, Bibi An­der­s­son, Jarl Kulle

Club, IFI, Dublin, 103 min On its re­lease in 1987, Gabriel Axel’s adap­ta­tion of a lit­tle-known Isak Di­ne­sen story be­came the film you needed to have seen when ar­riv­ing at fash­ion­able din­ner par­ties. You can just about see why. Ba­bette’s Feast re­mains one of the more lus­cious-look­ing food pic­tures. It’s also too empty, too po­lite and too in love with high-fat in­dul­gence.

Trans­lat­ing Di­ne­sen’s story from a Nor­we­gian town to a re­mote Dan­ish ham­let, Axel in­tro­duces us to Ba­bette (Stephane Au­dran), a maid ex­iled af­ter fall­ing foul of the Paris com­munes. She secures a po­si­tion with a Lutheran fam­ily and, for some years, com­mits her­self to cook­ing their Spar­tan, un­flashy meals. Then Ba­bette wins the lot­tery. Sur­pris­ing ev­ery­one, she de­cides to pre­pare a mag­nif­i­cent feast for her em­ploy­ers.

Emerg­ing two years af­ter a much sog­gier Di­ne­sen adap­ta­tion (Syd­ney Pollack’s Out of Africa), Ba­bette’s Feast was more than a lit­tle over- praised on re­lease. That great cur­mud­geon Jonathan Rosenbaum grumpily sug­gested that it didn’t “aim at any­thing higher than Mas­ter­piece The­atre or a Mer­chan­tIvory film”. This is a lit­tle un­fair on Mer­chant-Ivory (whose de­fence must wait for a fu­ture reis­sue), but it gets to a truth con­cern­ing the empty calo­ries on dis­play.

The sto­ry­telling in the open­ing half is solid, un­ex­cit­ing and con­ven­tional. But, to be fair, once prepa­ra­tion for the feast be­gins, the pic­ture clicks into its own odd gear. Ba­bette ex­hibits a near re­li­gious de­vo­tion to the cour­ses and the cam­era is happy to share in her ado­ra­tion. Some tur­tle soup? A lit­tle quail in puff pas­try? Rum baba with figs? It’s hardly sur­pris­ing to learn that, for its US re­lease, the dis­trib­u­tors per­suaded high-end restau­rants to pre­pare the film’s menus.

In an irony that in­vests the film with some tart un­der­tones, Isek Di­ne­sen – oth­er­wise known as Karen Blixen – even­tu­ally died of mal­nu­tri­tion. Try not to think of that when chew­ing through Axel’s over-rich film.

Com­pli­ments to the chef: Ba­bette (Stephane Au­dran) goes to work

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