Gabriel Axel Dies at 95; Directed ‘Babette’s Feast’
Gabriel Axel, a director whose 1987 labor of love, “Babette’s Feast,” received the first foreign-language Oscar awarded to a Danish motion picture — and heralded a growing popular interest in all things food — died on Sunday in Copenhagen. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Danish Film Directors Association.
Mr. Axel struggled for more than a decade to find backers for a film in which the characters shared equal billing with plates of ravishingly beautiful blinis, truffles and pastry-crusted quail. He wrote his first draft of the script, based on a short story by the Danish-born writer Isak Dinesen, in 1973.
Working steadily on French and Danish television and movie projects in the 1970s and early ’80s, Mr. Axel doggedly pursued his vision for 14 years before the film was completed and released.
“Babette’s Feast” was a surprise Oscar winner as best foreign-language film — it beat the heavy favorite, Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants” — partly because of rave reviews and word-of-mouth support, and partly because of new rules adopted in the early 1980s by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences requiring voting members to actually see the films they voted on.
Mr. Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he took the podium in Los Angeles in April 1988 to accept the award. After saying his thank-yous, he quoted a line from his film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
“Babette’s Feast” tells the story of Babette Hersant, a Cordon Bleu chef in 19th-century Paris who flees political upheaval and personal tragedy to find sanctuary in rural Denmark. There Babette, played by the French actress Stéphane Audran, works as a housemaid and cook for a pair of aging, unmarried sisters living ascetic lives as wardens of a pleasure-shunning, Puritan-like community founded by their father, who is now dead.
The story’s climax involves a five-star meal of many courses prepared by Babette that serves as a kind of revelation, opening the palates (and souls) of her mistresses and their flock to the communal joys — spiritual and sensual — of a shared meal, lovingly prepared.
The film’s spiritual overtones made it a favorite of both dedicated epicures and the devoutly religious. In 2010 Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina — later to become Pope Francis — told journalists that “Babette’s Feast” was his favorite film.
The film’s success coincided with, and helped propel, a broadening popular interest in haute cuisine. In the next decade there would be a proliferation of cookbooks, television shows and movies catering to epicurean tastes — including “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992), “Belle Époque” (1992), “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) and “Big Night” (1996).
“In ‘Babette’s Feast,’ the art of cooking by a dedicated professional chef became a cinematic subject worthy of our attention,” Steve Zimmerman, an anthropologist of food and author of the book “Food in the Movies,” wrote in a 2009 article published in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. In Mr. Axel’s film and others that it inspired, he added, food was not only “exquisitely photographed in close-up,” but also served as a “metaphorically significant” part of the story.
Gabriel Axel was born Gabriel Axel Moerch on April 18, 1918, in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city. He spent his childhood in Paris, where his father owned a furniture factory, and returned to Denmark at 18 to study carpentry, with an eye toward joining the family business. But, drawn to the performing arts, he enrolled instead in the Danish Royal Theater Actors School. He graduated in 1945 and dropped the last name Moerch when he joined the Paris theater troupe of the French film and stage artist Louis Jouvet.
Mr. Axel directed several large projects for French television, then returned to Denmark, where he produced series for public television and directed films in the ’50s and ’60s. He also acted in films.
He is survived by four children. His wife of nearly 50 years, Lucie Juliette Laraignou, died in 1996.
Before making “Babette’s Feast,” Mr. Axel was best known for “Hagbard and Signe” (1968), a tragic love story set amid warring Icelandic tribes. Among his other films is “Royal Deceit” (1994), based on the Danish legend of Prince Hamlet.
In interviews, Mr. Axel said “Babette’s Feast” was his most gratifying work because it tested his ability as a storyteller and as a translator of another writer’s poetic imagery. In producing the feast of the film’s title, he recalled, professional chefs prepared over 100 stuffed quails before he completed shooting the dinner for 12. Some birds lost their photogenic beauty under the hot lights and had to be replaced. Others were discarded because actors refused to suck the brains from the quails’ heads, as the script required.
Since it was essential that characters “crushed by pain” be shown coming “alive to love” as a result of real culinary pleasure, he said, he ordered the chefs on the set to prepare substitute brains made from marzipan.