However, Dinesen was a difficult selling point in her native country when Axel tried to get the project off the ground. Her work had inspired films in other countries, most notably Orson Welles' 1968 version of The Immortal Story, but Danish backers were unconvinced by the idea of mounting a production of the short story that inspired the film. All of that changed in 1985 when the Sydney Pollack film Out of Africa became a box office hit and took home an armload of awards, with Meryl Streep playing the author herself in an adaptation of her autobiographical writings. Backers were quickly found with funding secured from the Danish Film Institute, and Axel's film finally began production.
Dinesen had originally written the story on a bet from an American writer friend that she couldn't write a story for The Saturday Evening Post entirely about food. The end result was actually rejected and instead found a home in Ladies' Home Journal in 1950. The tale involves a pair of devout sisters living in a seaside village whose lives are changed by the arrival of a new housekeeper, Babette, a Parisian refugee whose winning lottery ticket prompts her to mount a lavish dinner for the sisters and the town's congregation, whose commitment to austerity is transformed in the process.
Best known for her roles in films by her ex-husband, director Claude Chabrol, as well as Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Stéphane Audran was cast in the titular role of Babette on the strength of her performance in the dramatic thriller Violette (1978). She didn't speak Danish, but fortunately director Gabriel Axel spoke fluent French. The culture clash on set between the Danish crew (who enjoyed stopping at ten each morning for a schnapps break, according to Audran, and didn't comprehend the story of the film particularly well) and the "foreign" star and director enhanced the tension that can be felt in the film.
The interior scenes were shot on a soundstage in Copenhagen, while a number of exteriors were discovered around Norway with the village itself built along the sea near a popular tourist swimming location in Jutland. However, the striking visuals extend beyond the scenery and into the production design itself, with fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld designing Babette's iconic cape and cloak. Lagerfeld and Audran had worked together on several prior films dating back to the 1973 Chabrol film Wedding in Blood, with this creation ranking as the most famous of their collaboration. Fittingly, the costume was later donated to the Cinémathèque Française.
A major art house sensation upon its release and an Un Certain Regard selection at the Cannes Film Festival, Babette's Feast was released in the United States by Orion Pictures with limited screenings at the end of 1987 to qualify for Oscar® consideration, followed by a wider release in March of 1988. The film was branded under the company's Orion Classics banner devoted to international cinema, tucked in the middle of a remarkable six-month period in which they also released Manon of the Spring, Au Revoir Les Enfants, A Month in the Country, and Wings of Desire. The innovative promotional campaign for awards season also included feasts faithfully reproducing Babette's handiwork to coincide with screenings in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The public enthusiasm translated into an Academy Award win for Foreign Language Film in 1988, making it the first Danish film to take home the award.
In the decades since its release, Babette's Feast has remained a perpetual favorite among cineastes as well as a regular screening choice due to its delicate handling of topics ranging from gourmet food to religion to modern morality, with its concepts of humble artistry and sacrifice still striking a cord in viewers worldwide. More recently the film made the news in 2013 when it was lauded by Pope Francis, who alternates it with Fellini's La Strada (1954) as one of his all-time favorites.
By Nathaniel Thompson