I am someone who enjoys reading obituaries, and so I was interested to learn that Gabriel Axel recently died, aged 95. He was best known to the English-speaking world for the film Babette’s Feast, adapted by Axel from Isak Dinesen’s short story of the same title.
I first saw this Danish production when it was released in 1987. It was a film that spoke to me in many ways, not the least of which was its visual beauty.
The story is about two 19th century spinsters, Phillapa and Matine who live a pious existence in their fishing village on the west coast of Norway.
Using flashbacks, the film returns us to their youth where we see the lives of two young women controlled and governed by the tyrannical rule of their minister father.
After the fathers death, Phillapa and Matine continue the faather’s dictate of self denial and chastity.
Much later in their lives it was the arrival of Babette, a refugee from Paris that was to bring transformation not just to Phillipa and Matine but also to the few remaining souls who had been part of their father’s flock.
The pivotal moment is when Babette wins some lottery money and invests the winnings into a memorial dinner to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the dead Minister.
Babette preparing the feast.
The feast which celebrates life, love and food, is made up of all sorts of exotic delicacies and wine…….
To begin with the villagers are horrified, but as the sensuality of the experience works its magic, they are transformed.
This is a story that resonates with me on so many levels, and reminds me of a very special person in my life, Madame Nottale.
I painted this portrait of Madame Nottale in the eighties, after she had prepared a feast in my honour when I visited her in Marley le Roi, outside of Paris.
A remarkable woman on so many levels, Madame Nottale’s life would make an amazing book. Along with her extraordinary experiences as a child and in World War 2, she raised eight children, continuing to work as a nurse throughout. Her husband, was away at sea for most of the time.
I met Madame Nottale through her daughter Claudia, who came to stay with my family in 1978 when I was living in the States. Claudia introduced me to her Mother, Madame Nottale on a visit to France in 1985.
A small oil on canvas portrait of Claudia as a young girl.
Madame Nottale continued to work as a nurse into her late seventies. Over the years, she had suffered great loss, and yet continued to be there for her family and those that she was nursing.
Then around the age of eighty came transformation…..
For the first time in her life, she was able to do what she wanted to do, which was write and paint. Her family were amazed to see this huge part of her being revealed.
When I visited her two years ago, now in a nursing home, her room was full of paintings and drawings….every surface was covered. She asked me to call her Annette – and together we talked about painting, colour,writing, love and life, all of which Annette embodies.
Annette’s whole countenance had changed – a softness had come to her face. During our time together, I made a quick watercolour sketch which I feel expresses her transformation.
Babette’s Feast, and the story of Madame Nottale show us that it is never too late to open up to the simple joys of being fully alive.