One of the most acclaimed films in Cannes this year, Trang Anh Hung’s La passion de Dodin Bouffant, which also won the award for best director, is not just a story about “The Napoleon of the culinary arts”, Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), and his beloved cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), but one that distinguishes itself visually through a mise-en-scéne evocative of Impressionist paintings. It is this latter quality that made me return to a classic and a visual piece of art in the world’s cinema: Babette’s Feast (1987).
Based on Karen Blixen’s short story by the same name, this is another one of the Danish author’s writings which was beautifully served by the moving picture (Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa had come out two years before, in 1985, to worldwide acclaim). It is the tale of Babette (Stéphane Audran), a Parisienne with a mysterious past, displaced by the 1830s Communard uprising, who comes to live in an ascetic Lutheran community on Denmark’s Jütland coast. She works as a housekeeper and cook to two elderly sisters, Martine and Philippa, and she also cooks for the elderly folk in the village. It’s through her cooking (not only the feast of the title, but especially the slight but significant changes she makes in the food she serves daily – when she has to leave for a few days and Philippa and Martine bring their soup to an old man in the village, he is sour for the lack of taste of the food and leaves his spoon down) that Babette is going to make this austere community discover not just the pleasure of food, but the triumph of art, and how art can free minds and hearts and can cause them to rearrange personal feelings. When she wins the lottery, Babette, so wonderfully, luminously inhabited by Stéphane Audran, who hovers a subtle sensuality over this remote and spartan village and over the entire movie, instead of returning to France, and after she has bent on these people’s monastic way of life for years, takes the opportunity to treat them to a culinary feast.
Director Gabriel Axel described the film in the most beautiful way in a conversation with Jill Forbes, for Sight & Sound magazine, in 1988: “All I can say is that in Babette’s Feast there’s a minister, but it’s not a film about religion. There’s a general, but it’s not a film about the army. There’s a cook, but it’s not a film about cooking. It’s a fairy tale, and if you try to over-explain it, you destroy it. If you wish, it’s a film about the vagaries of fate and a film about art because Babette is an artist. She creates the greatest masterpiece of her life and gives it to the two old maids. The moment you start to dissect the film it becomes symbolic, and I resist that. It’s the love of her work and her knowledge of it which affects people.” I love his refusal to too much “narrative”, to explaining too much. It is Babette’s story and the way it is visually told that affects us, as viewers. It was her story and her profession, that seems so typically French, in the director’s own words, that attracted him to the story in the first place, and he found a way to telling us the story, through the retention of the image, the moving image. “An artist is never poor,” she answers Philippa when they find out she has spent all the money she had won in lottery for the elaborate French dinner she prepared for them.
This past summer I finally got around to reading Karen Blixen’ short story. I had first seen the film years before that. And I was actually glad I had watched the film first, because I loved reading the book with the image of Stéphane Audran as Babette. Audran is so much a part of the film that she seems part of the mise-en-scéne. This is a film that best conjures up Stéphane’s talent and presence. One unforgettable moment is how respectful and composed she remains when she – who, unbeknownst to everyone else, us viewers included, used to be a head chef at Café Anglais, one of the best restaurants in Paris, long ago – has to listen to Martine explaining to her how to prepare ale-and-bread soup. “It has to soak.” “You slice it.” “Bread.” “A little ale.” “Ale-and—bread soup.” Stéphane is sublime, and so is the entire scene.
Director Gabriel Axel – who was Danish but brought up in Paris and who confessed that, in a film studio, he felt more at home in France than in Copenhagen – said in an interview with Raoul Mille that he didn’t think of the French actress right away, but she was the perfect choice. “She was feminine, and she had that Parisian feel that Babette needed to have in this film. Also, in Karl Lagerfeld’s cloak, she was… She had to differentiate herself from the others, which she did perfectly with lots of grace and generosity. She is a wonderful actress, in addition to being a great artist.” Babette is an artist, too, and Stéphane Audran has all the right gestures in the kitchen. Not only did she learn to deliver her lines phonetically in Danish, but, according to the director, she learned the métier from Chef Peterson from the La Cocotte restaurant, who taught them the recipes and all the mannerisms. And when you watch Audran, you don’t just watch an actor on screen, you watch a chef, Babette, in her kitchen. The grace was there for the director to capture it, and in relationship to her expressivity, complements each image.
For her film wardrobe, Stéphane Audran worked with Karl Lagerfeld. The cape and cloak that Gabriel Axel refers to, which are now in the collection of La Cinémathèque Française, are considered one of the most iconic pieces of film costume. On the sketch of Babette’s costume, which Stéphane Audran kept, Lagerfeld wrote: “Babette costume de voyage”, and a few other details: “10 boutons, culeur in ton degradé, gros plis religeuse.” Babette is wrapped in the cape when she first arrives on the hostile, stormy and windy Danish coast. It gives the actress the appearance of a blaze in the dark, announcing a change in the air and in the very nature of the place. “I accepted the role by reading, at the end of the script, such a beautiful sentence which said, ‘From the heart of the artist rises a long cry for the whole world. Give me the opportunity to give my best. He who puts love into what he does is an artist.’”
Karl Lagerfeld and Stéphane Audran had an exceptional artistic relationship, one that stretched over many years and many films, starting from the 1970s. She even appeared in Vogue editorials wearing his designs for Chloé. In one of them, shot by Deborah Turbeville for the American Vogue, February 1975, Stéphane Audran is photographed in Karl’s apartment in Paris (which was often used for magazine shootings) next to Karl himself and his right hand, Marie-France Acquaviva. Stéphane is wearing one of the designer’s ravishing two-piece crepe de chines for Chloé – “the palest bois de rose blouse, two-tone sash, pleated skirt” – and Marie-France is dressed “in the thinnest of thin suedes – without hems, without double stitching, swede that becomes skin again.”
It was another designer however, who was also a friend, Maurice Albray, who had taught Stéphane Audran, in the 1960s, about the importance that a piece of clothing could have in embodying a character. “As long as I don’t have the clothing, I don’t know where I’m going. The moment I have found it, I feel calm,” Audran confessed. Everything started with the clothes. When Albray left for the United States, Audran read an article in Elle about four up-coming fashion designers, Karl Lagerfeld being one of them. She contacted him and the rest, as they say, is history, movie history. Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall), from 1971, directed by Claude Chabrol, was their first film together. “This work was different from his activity in fashion and that’s certainly what amused him,” Stéphane said about Lagerfeld, a designer who was always appreciated not just for his artistic eye and talent, but also for his culture and intelligence. “The excesses of his imagination took me back to the disguises of my childhood. It was light, happy, different. In Les noces rouges (The Red Wedding), in 1973, I played a bourgeois woman who has a lover. They become murderers by killing their respective spouses. For one of the costumes, Chabrol asked Karl for a dash of red which would symbolise sex and death. He designed a classic dress, buttoned in the front. When I sat down, we saw a red jumpsuit. Anybody else would have thought of a scarf or gloves. For example, like the ones worn by Isabelle Huppert in L’ivresse du pouvoir (Comedy of Power).”
The actress kept all the designer’s sketches from the very beginning, first from during his Chloé years (“It was Karl who crystalised an identity for Chloé for the first time. Evanescence, fleeting, fluid, light as air, his clothes were a medium for the freedoms and fantasies of a generation,” says the book Chloé-Attitudes) and then at Chanel (under his tutelage and with his drive to always express something fresh, exuberance and elegance were wed like never before or after). “Karl arrived at Chanel in 1983, I frequently found him at the ‘studio’ for fittings…,” Audran remembered. A small company was established around Stéphane Audran. Lagerfeld transmitted his instructions to the studio’s director of haute couture coordination, Martine Cartegini. Her role, she wrote in her autobiography, was to make sure that all the designer’s decisions were faithfully reproduced. She was the one who met with the artisans, embroiderers, jewellers. In general, Karl Lagerfeld only came back for the last fittings. His sketches were always very precise. On another sketch that Stéphane kept, of a boot he designed for her for Folies bourgeoises, also directed by Chabrol, he wrote: “heels: 7 centimeters.” And then further on, another note: “like Gloria Swanson.” Audran remarked how “Karl had an overall vision. He designed jewellery, hats, shoes, hairstyles, makeup, underwear… everything from head to toe.”
The climactic dinner is grandiose. But not just because of the fancy food, but because of the setting, in stark contrast to the modest homes and way of life of the villagers, and because of Babette’s preparation. It’s all in the details. The way she inspects all the food when it arrives from Paris, the way she cuts the dough, the way she serves the wine. A work of art. And the people at the table don’t even know what they are eating, nor do they allow themselves the pleasure of enjoying the food. Only the General, a man of the world who, as a young man, had taken a liking to Martine before dedicating himself to a military career, is a true connoisseur. Years before, he had dined at Café Anglais, where he tells everyone that the head chef was a woman and where he and his colleagues were served “cailles en sarcophage, a dish of her own creation.” And this woman, this head chef, he explains, “had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, alive affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.” He knows he is experiencing something unique. But I would say that the one who feels the most genuine pleasure is the carriage driver, a simple man who sits with Babette in the kitchen during the dinner as she prepares everything, his face lighting up in a smile every time he tastes something. And the most beautiful cinematic moment comes when the film cuts to a frame of the empty dining room, the table still uncleared after the feast – the guests are in the other room having coffee – and the piano music stops exactly before Babette’s helper, a young boy, sneaks in and empties the General’s glass of wine from one sip. It’s one of those moments that belongs to cinema, from the times when cinema did everything in the camera or in the editing room, without digital special effects. It’s also the realisation, so simply and subtly done, that Babette’s work of art has reached everyone.
Far from being just a great food-centered movie, Babette’s Feast is a visual feast because of the way it is filmed. From Stéphane Audran’s Babette, who truly is the center piece of the film, to the simplicity yet richness of each single frame textured in muted colours, Gabriel Axel’s film fascinates with the visual power of a fairy tale. “My real master is Louis Jouvet,” the director confessed in the Sight & Sound interview, “whom I admire as a man of the theatre, for his simplicity and total refinement. I worked for four years as a spear-carrier in Jouvet’s company in Paris. I find a similar quality in certain painters, such as Braque or Vermeer. Nothing extraneous, only the essential. In a film, what I look for is the actor’s face. Nothing should detract from the actor’s eyes, in which everything can be read, whether in long-shot or in close-up. In Babette, there’s hardly a story. It’s just a series of portraits. And that’s my ultimate aim.”