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It may not be a masterpiece, but you'll probably want a seat at the table for this one anyway....
Criterion / 103 Minutes / 1987 / Unrated / Street Date: July 23, 2013
Whatever you do, don’t watch Babette’s Feast hungry. This Oscar-winning tale about the human condition and how the enjoyment of food figures into our existence may not exactly have the narrative fluidity that its many accolades imply, but it’s absolutely one of the great films ever made about the construction and consumption of cuisine. And in high-def, the title event here looks delicious.
Our title character is Babette (Stephane Audran), a top-notch Parisian chef who was forced to flee to the ragged rural coast of Denmark after the French uprising of 1871. There is, of course, a cast of many characters who populate the small town she ends up in, and while all of them are soft-spoken and humbled by both their intrinsic religion and the harsh presence of the sea that seems to influence every and all elements of their lives, once Babette decides to stage one huge meal for all denizens to participate in, things get interesting.
Based on the novel by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast isn’t exceptionally adventurous in terms of cinematic formality or ambition, but its quiet grace nevertheless finds a solid foothold. This is a simple, whisper-volume piece of melodrama that doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but once its climactic culinary endeavor starts amping up, it’s difficult not to feel as though you’re there in the kitchen with these characters and no longer sitting (hungrily) on your sofa.
And even though Babette’s Feast isn’t a particularly elderly title, Criterion has liberated the movie from the VHS vaults with marvelous accomplishment. Many cinephile thirty-somethings will likely remember renting the movie after it was released soon after it picked up a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in the late 1980s, but in high-def, it’s a brand-new experience. To call Babette’s Feast a masterwork is to give it too much credit, but if you’re cobbling together a list of the top five movies about food, this one surely has a shot of making it on there.