Isak Dinesen’s most widely read work, next to Out of Africa, is the short novel Babette’s Feast, a rousing yarn of delicate philosophical overtones about a French female chef de cuisine of five-star repute, exiled after the Paris uprisings of 1871, who survives as a maid and cook to a couple of elderly puritan and devout spinster daughters of a strict sectarian vicar-prophet, now passed away, on a remote and rugged Scandinavian North Sea coast.
Story has its title character (France’s Stephane Audran) given a fling at preparing and serving up one final great dinner by blowing on it her entire 10,000 Golden Francs winnings from a lottery ticket. At the table are the villagers, sect members lately fallen to bickering among themselves, innocent and even averse to any food beyond brown bread soup and dried cod with water on the side. A visiting Swedish general and diplomat (Jarl Kulle), once a suitor to one of the vicar’s daughters, has happened by, too. Now, they are all momentarily propelled spiritually heavenwards by what they eat and drink.
After a somewhat lingering start, veteran helmer Gabriel Axel succeeds where it really counts. On the screen he serves up the famous dinner with vigor and juicy detail. What bogs Babette down a bit at the outset is Axel’s resorting to voice-over narration technique in supplying story background and motivations. Still, the overall mood of the original story is faithfully retained, and Sweden’s Kulle, one of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite actors, matches Audran in wit and depth although the two are never seen together.