Danish writer-director Gabriel Axel is perhaps best recalled for his biggest international success, the Academy Award-winning drama "Babette's Feast" (1987), but he had a long career as an actor, director and writer in both film, television and the theater until his retirement following the experimental dialogue-free drama "Leïla" (2001).
Born in Århus, Denmark, Axel was raised in France between the wars. After training at the Danish National Conservatory, Axel returned to Paris in the aftermath of World War II and began working as a stagehand and actor with Louis Jouvet's theater company. He then migrated back to Copenhagen and began acting in boulevard comedies on stage and in small role in Danish films. Axel stepped behind the cameras to direct his first feature "Altid ballade" in 1955. With 1958's "Golden Mountains/The Girls Are Willing", he raised his international profile some and over the years, he honed his skills as both actor and director in a series of mostly comic features like "Love and Kisses" (1971) and "The Goldencabbage Family" (1975).
With "Babette's Feast", drawn from a story by Isak Dinesen, Axel enjoyed that rare confluence of art and commerce. Hailed as a masterpiece, the sumptuous film was in many ways the distillation of the then-sixtysomething director's life work. Winner of numerous prizes, "Babette's Feast" is now considered a classic of contemporary world cinema. As a follow-up, Axel wrote and directed "Christian" (1989), an adventure film about a young man traveling throughout Europe in part to heal a broken heart. In his mid-70s, the director tackled the story of Amled, a 12th-century Danish prince who feigns madness to avenge the deaths of his father and brother. Working from the same source material that provided Shakespeare with the idea for "Hamlet" eventually proved defeating even for Axel, despite the presence of such fine actors as Christian Bale, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne and Brian Cox. Compounding the production's problems, Axel fell ill during the editing process and was unable to complete post-production work. A screening at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival and an unsuccessful release in France led to bad word-of-mouth, In the USA, Miramax acquired the rights, re-cut the film and eventually released it direct-to-video in 1998 under the title "Royal Deceit."
After a six-year absence, and now in his eighties, Axel returned to feature filmmaking as co-writer and director of "Leïla" (2001), a love story about a teenage Moroccan girl and a young Danish tourist. In an unusual step, the filmmaker opted to depict their relationship and her parents' objections without dialogue. It proved to be Axel's final film. Gabriel Axel died in Copenhagen on February 9, 2014, at the age of 95.