Pascal Benezech, Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Karin Viard
(Studio Canal; US DVD: 14 Sep 2010)
At first, it seems like a lot of little disconnected elements fused together, a twee combination of eccentricities and events that play like a fairy tale flailing in the boiling brain of one of the fevered Brothers Grimm. The rules of this weird dystopian society struggle to be understood, from the obsessive fascination with food (including the use of corn as a commodity) and the post-nuclear haze to the Luddite like vegetarian resistance movement known as the “Troglodistes”.
In between, we meet ex-circus clowns, smoking school kids, blustery busybodies, inventors, and a man living in his own personal frog legs/escargot factory. Together they form a smorgasbord of unusual pieces—a Delicatessen of demented delights—finally brought into focus by the brilliance of artists/directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. As a benchmark for its creative duo, a team that would go on to craft the equally brilliant City of Lost Children, this cracked cautionary tale offers us an iconoclastic glimpse into man’s inhumanity to man.
The story centers on a butcher named Mr. Clapet who runs a dilapidated apartment building in the middle of a post-apocalyptic France. Sustenance is scarce, but our hulking brute always seems to have some groceries on hand. Using his tenets as a meat “source” and selling his wares to the rest of the residents, he is a despotic bully. His nearsighted daughter, Julie, puts up with his work, knowing that the world outside her home is far more dangerous
. When an unemployed entertainer named Louison moves in, after answering an ad placed by Mr. Clapet, he looks like the next bit of “inventory” in the fiend’s food stocks. But with Julie’s help, and the aid of some unusual resistance fighters, our meat grinder’s days as a murderous dictator may be numbered.
In his insightful commentary track for the film (now on Blu-ray, though the discussion dates from 2001) Jeunet makes it very clear that his movies start out as a ragtag bunch of wistful visions. They are ideas cooked up by himself and frequent collaborator Caro, that are then fused together much like a filmic Frankenstein by some diabolical cinematic mad scientists. In the case of Delicatessen, the duo had the main theme for ages, working on it off and on while they toiled away in animation and advertising.
As their producer worked long and hard to secure financing for this first film, Jeunet and Caro continuing retrofitting their flashes of genius into logically sound sequences. The most difficult bit came toward the end, when ambitions and imagination hit budgetary limits and F/X possibilities to shape the final product. It required the duo to rethink and improvise, putting their skills as first timers to the test.
So no matter how magical it all seems, what is clear is that something like Delicatessen is an insanely complex combination of potential and the pragmatic. Even within its own subtext, it argues for the way things might turn out in a world gone surreptitiously cannibal against what is essentially a French fried Aesop’s fable. From the opening credits which scan a junk yard, each crew name being matched to an item that represents their job on the film, to a mid-act sight gag involving some squeaky bed springs, a rug duster, and a direct homage to Buster Keaton, the hodgepodge nature of this amazing work symbolizes the special relationship between its makers. Delicatessen may have a deeper meaning as a social commentary or a serio-comic allusion (indeed, there definitely seems to be a surreal eco-friendly feel to the entire project), but the true nature of this beast is how magnificent Jeunet and Caro’s visions meld and coexist.
There is a delicate, almost artisan nature to the look of the film (achieved, according to the director, by a painstaking celluloid process that was light years ahead of the new digital color desaturation), a way of looking at things that speaks volumes without relying on reams of dialogue or pages of exposition. Faces are just as important to Jeunet and Caro as facts, and all throughout the film are examples of their persona-oriented approach. In actuality, such future constants as Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Rufus, Tricky Holgado, and mainstay Dominique Pinon all got their start here, and with good reason. They become caricatures of the already cartoon people they play, easy to identify types that Jeunet and Caro can them goof around with and manipulate. There is a silent film function to their casting, a way of making sense out of mere images and ideas without totally telegraphing everything to the audience.
Similarly, their baroque approach to design, framing and composition suggests the Great Masters, or more contemporary, the carefully constructed tableaus of the Coen Brothers. Shots are not wasted, sequences spin into themselves on waves of wondermint dream logic. Like kids in a candy store, Jeunet and Caro constantly shoot for the most sweet and sublime. They also add touches of the sinister and the subversive to keep things from getting too cloying or cruel.
As time has passed, it’s clear that much of the darker dimension here was brought in by Caro. With him, Jeunet made the almost Dickensonian City of Lost Children. Without him, he made the much sunnier Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, and Micmacs. Delicatessen, however, is where the germ of their joint efforts would take seed and sprout. It’s the announcement of individuals ready to throw convention to the wind and work under their own eccentric muse.
As for the movie itself, it’s spry and mischievous, loaded with good humor and even greater heart. Its self-styled insularity (done on purpose for one simple reason: money) treats us to a look at a universe where nothing seems real and yet everything clicks with a meaningful, mechanical precision. Wildly entertaining but never openly obvious in its many strengths, it’s a flower with apparently mismatched petals that open to reveal the most mystical blossom imaginable.
While they would both go on to surpass this opening salvo in their soon to be legendary mythos, it’s the surprising nature of Delicatessen that truly cemented their considerable cult. At first, it’s kind of a mess. By the end, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.