Home Video Hovel: Babette’s Feast, by Scott Nye
I fashion myself a pretty big fan of The Criterion Collection. Hell, when I’m not writing here, I’m mostly writing for CriterionCast.com, a site dedicated entirely to said Collection. I’ve generally found their releases, even if not always at masterpiece level or anything, to be more than worth your time, and quite often your money. Their reputation is more than established, and they’re still building it. It is extraordinarily rare that I come across a film they release that just isn’t all that good.
But let me tell you guys, Babette’s Feast isn’t all that good.
The 1980s are often derided for institutionalizing the blockbuster mentality that has gradually come to define the American cinema as a whole, but the flip side of the cultural landscape wasn’t much better. Handsomely made, vaguely artistic, but absurdly dull films seemed to swarm each year’s Oscars like so much locusts (this film won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language FIlm), but that would imply at least a level of carnage that would be much more interesting than these films themselves. It’s as though all the filmmakers who came up through the rough-and-tumble 70s just got exhausted from all that revelry.
No filmmaker better embodies that supposition than Gabriel Axel, a man who spent most of his career making sex romps until he suddenly spent fifteen years trying to bring his adaptation of Karen Blixen’s (who wrote it under the pen name Isak Dinesen) short story about a woman who gives away the entire possibility of a future to making a meal for a group of women who just don’t like it all that much, and her only slightly better.
I don’t mean to be so sweepingly dismissive of the film. Okay, I do. It comes so naturally, so easily. I can hang with the slowest of the slow pictures. I adore Bela Tarr, Chantal Akerman, and those weird films Gus Van Sant made in the mid-2000s. Babette’s Feast was 103 minutes and felt like an eternity. In adapting the short story, included in this release, Axel removed so much of the flair, the personality, the simply-stated melancholy, and the quiet sadness, choosing instead a pervasive air of the sort of pleasantry one most closely associates with dinner parties during which the slightest sense of an interesting conversation will only get you sour looks and diverted eyes. It’s the pleasantry of the implicitly imprisoned, capped off with an ending so infuriatingly regressive, I half-expected it to single-handedly resurrect Bosley Crowther just so he could chat with the Academy’s voting block about how nice everything used to be.
Should you feel differently than me, I suppose I’m pleased to say you will find much to celebrate in Criterion’s handsome Blu-ray release of the film. The transfer is exceedingly gorgeous, full of rich and textured detail, and were I not so vehemently opposed to the film itself, I would likely submit it as among the best of the year overall. The sound track, and element usually dismissible in releases of older films, is extremely sharp, and it’s clear Axel did not let this element slide in the production. It goes a lot way towards establishing the feeling of this cast-off environment. Every creak of the staircase, every wisp of wind through the shutters, lends a coldness that the rest of the film so blithely ignores.
Special features are also plenty, and substantive, most prominently a documentary about Blixen, interviews with Axel, actor Stéphane Audran, and sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, the latter of whom address the significance of cuisine in French culture. Lastly, a visual essay by Michael Almereyda is probably the best of the bunch, and goes the furthest towards making a compelling case for the value of the film, though not, in my opinion, nearly far enough.