Obituary: Gabriel Axel, film director

Gabriel Axel: Danish director feted for his Oscar-winning  film Babette's Feast. Picture: Getty
Gabriel Axel: Danish director feted for his Oscar-winning film Babette's Feast. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

Born 18 April, 1918, in Aarhus, Denmark. Died: 10 February, 2014, in Bagsværd, near Copenhagen, aged 95

Gabriel Axel spent much of his career directing comedy films for the Danish market, with the odd sexploitation movie along the way. Nobody took notice of him outside Denmark until in his late sixties he came up with a film that captivated audiences around the world, won an Oscar and a Bafta, and attained classic status.

Rarely before had anyone made food and drink such a central element in a feature film as Gabriel Axel did when he made Babette’s Feast.

The film was set in an austere Protestant community in Denmark in the 19th century, where two pious spinsters get a new French housekeeper. After many years it transpires she was once a top chef and they host a dinner party. And the austere, black-clad characters, who might have looked at home in the company of John Knox, are seduced by her fine cuisine. It was one of the must-see films of 1988. Upmarket restaurants offered the same sumptuous banquet presented on screen, including caviar blinis, turtle soup, quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, and Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée, served on the finest china and accompanied by the finest wines. And last year it was revealed that it is the new Pope’s favourite film – quite an achievement for a director, who, before Babette’s Feast, was best known for a film about porn.

Gabriel Axel Moerch was born into a well-off family in Aarhus in 1918 – he would drop his surname when he became an actor. His father had a furniture factory in Paris. Axel grew up mainly in France and trained as a cabinet-maker, before deciding he would rather pursue the dramatic arts. He moved from theatre to television and from acting to directing. By the end of the 1950s he was directing feature films for the Danish market.

Few of his early films were seen in the UK, though the Red Mantle, a Viking film with sex and violence, got a limited release in British cinemas, with an X certificate, after screening at Cannes in 1967.

Danish Blue created much more of a stir a few years later as it mixed documentary, street interviews, reconstructions and an element of comedy, though it certainly did not amuse everyone and left critics unimpressed.

It was banned by the British Board of Film Censors. But because of the odd arrangements at the time the ban was overruled by several local councils “Only for the broad minded,” warned the advertising.

Audiences in Edinburgh were deemed sufficiently broad-minded and mature to see it and it was shown in the early 1970s at Edinburgh’s Jacey cinema, which specialised in sexploitation films. However the film was considered unsuitable for the more sensitive audience in Glasgow, where the city fathers banned it.

After Danish Blue, Axel slipped back into obscurity, splitting his time between Denmark and France, where he worked largely in television.

Babette’s Feast was based on a story by Karen Blixen, the Danish author who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen and had recently been portrayed on the big screen by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.

It boasted a strong cast headed by the French actress Stéphane Audran as Babette. But nothing in Axel’s previous work suggested he might suddenly make a film that would win an Oscar. Shot in shades of grey, the film unhurriedly works its way towards the eponymous banquet.

In retrospect Axel did perhaps draw on his experience of comedy and sexploitation for that climactic meal. One character, unfamiliar with Champagne, concludes it must be lemonade. The stern features of the characters begin to melt at the sights and tastes presented to them and they find it impossible to resist the sensual delight of it all.

A bespectacled and bearded figure, Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he collected his Oscar. He only made three more feature films over the next 12 years. The most notable was Prince of Jutland, a retelling of Hamlet from the original source, starring Christian Bale and Helen Mirren. It got poor reviews and went virtually unnoticed.

Axel’s wife predeceased him. They had four children, including Karin Moerch, a journalist and author, whose works include a 2008 biography of her father entitled Gabriel’s Feast: Portrait of a Film-Maker.