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R.I.P. Gabriel Axel, director of Babette's Feast

Danish film director Gabriel Axel has died at the age of 95. Axel wrote and directed the 1987 adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987, an upset win over Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants. (The Academy was crazy about Isak Dinesen, a.k.a. Karen Blixen, in the ‘80s: A couple of years earlier, the Best Picture award went to Sydney Pollack’s lavish film version of the autobiographical Out Of Africa.) Babette’s Feast was the first Danish film to win the Oscar, and its success led to a reappraisal and heightened profile for that country’s cinema. The very next year, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film went to Pelle The Conquerer, from a different Danish director, Bille August.

By the time his most famous film made him internationally known, Axel was already 75 and had been directing feature films for 30 years, after an earlier career as an actor. After a decade spent mostly making light sex comedies, Axel first received international attention with 1967’s The Red Mantle, a Viking drama based on Romeo And Juliet, which won a technical prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It played in the U.S. under the title Hagbard And Signe.

Axel was never fully capitalized on the international success of Babette’s Feast. His 1989 film, Christian, was a flop. In 1994, he directed Prince Of Rutland, an ambitious English-language project with English-language stars (including Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, and Christian Bale), but fell sick and lost control of it during post-production. (Four years later, it was retitled Royal Deceit and released in the U.S. in a recut, direct-to-video version.) His final feature was 2001’s Leila. Axel also contributed a short film to the all-star-director omnibus project Lumiere And Company.

In 2003, Axel received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Copenhagen International Film Festival. In 2012, he received the Rungstedlund Award, a prize given annually “to a person who has made a notable contribution in an area which interested Karen Blixen.”

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