New York — ``Babette's Feast'' is a coproduction between France and Denmark, two countries that don't often make movies together. They turn out to be a terrific team - especially on this particular project - since the story takes place in the Danish countryside and the main character is a very French woman. In fact, she used to be a chef in Paris, until civil war broke out - the pivotal year of the story is 1871 - and turned her life upside down. Forced to flee her own land, she has made her way to Denmark, armed with a letter of introduction from an old friend. There she moves into a small fishing village on the Jutland peninsula, which promises to shelter her until France returns to normal.
This is no ordinary community, though. Its small population includes a strict Lutheran congregation that has its own special way of living. The group has known better days. It has only a few members left,and most of them, including the sisters whose father originated the sect, are getting old. But they still live according to the rules set down by their founder years ago. These dictate a strict and simple life, with few pleasures - and none of what most people call fun.
It's quite a culture shock for Babette to move from Paris to this austere place. It's a bit unsettling for her new neighbors, too. They never dreamed they'd have a French servant laboring for them, washing their windows, and preparing the gruel that's a staple of their diet. Then, too, Babette comes from a Roman Catholic background, and the people of the village - where even a girl is likely to have Martin Luther as a namesake - aren't used to people of the ``wrong'' religion.
But everyone makes the best of it, and soon Babette shares a deep affection with the people who have taken her in. Eventually, when a financial windfall comes her way, she decides to show her affection in the way she knows best: by preparing a special meal for her Danish friends. It isn't easy getting the ingredients, since this place is really in the middle of nowhere. But she manages to obtain what she needs, and the whole last part of the movie is nothing but Babette's long and hearty feast.
The joke of this scene - the sublime, gentle joke - is that the villagers aren't supposed to indulge in earthly things like the special food and conviviality of a festive meal. But they can't refuse Babette's offer, because (as they sense, without consciously saying it to themselves) it comes from a spirit of love that's more uplifting than anything in their stern code of behavior. So they join in the feast, and, despite their severe ideas, they find themselves more touched and moved than any of them have been for years. Gradually they learn that one shared experience - if it's filled with enough love and joy - can change every life it touches, in beautiful and unexpected ways.
``Babette's Feast'' is based on a brief, deftly constructed story by Isak Dinesen, whose real name was Karen Blixen, the name that appears over the title in the film's credits.
She's the same author who inspired the popular but top-heavy ``Out of Africa'' a few seasons ago; the tale about Babette is included in her ``Anecdotes of Destiny'' collection of 1958, which also includes ``An Immortal Story,'' the source for one of Orson Welles's last completed films.
The director and screenwriter of ``Babette'' is Gabriel Axel, a French-born filmmaker who divides his career between France and Denmark. He gives the story a delicacy and a wry humor that are as delightful, at their best moments, as anything in recent European cinema.
Babette is played with quiet wit by St'ephane Audran, the versatile French star who's known mainly for films by Claude Chabrol, her ex-husband. Her old and new friends are superbly portrayed by a mostly, but not entirely, Scandinavian gallery of performers, among them Bibi Andersson, Jean-Philippe Lafont, and Jarl Kulle in an inspired portrayal of a military man who sits in on the climactic dinner party.
``Babette's Feast'' isn't a fast-moving or flashy film. But it has a subtle charm and a warm humor that stick to your ribs far longer than the usual motion-picture glitz.
And as icing on the proverbial cake, the film carries a G rating - a true rarity among ``serious'' movies in this day and age.