I am a bad pop critic. Just today I came to realize how far my finger has slipped from the American pulse. I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. I’ve never seen an episode of Lost. I have absolutely no idea how I’m supposed to feel about Britney and K-Fed.
And today, as I was talking to a friend of mine about reviewing the DVD of the black comedy Delicatessen, she sniffed, “Whatever. I hate the French.” Not French film, not French culture. The French.
I was stunned. We still hate the French? We’re still holding a grudge over the Iraq War? It’s been three years—we’re still calling them “freedom fries”? I had no idea.
Seriously, people, lay off the French. They may not agree with their neighbors and they may have invented nouvelle cuisine, but we Americans still owe them huge for the best way to kiss, the X-ray, the Lost Generation, and helping us win the Revolutionary War. And for films like Delicatessen, as funny and romantic a slice of post-apocalyptic despair as you’ll ever see.
The action is set in the days following an unspecified environmental cataclysm that has wiped out all arable land. All livestock, seeds and grain are the new currency and meat is the most precious commodity. Far from being the final taboo, cannibalism is now rampant. In such a hellish future, power belongs to those who can feed others, and in a building on the Place des Alumines, M. Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) reigns supreme. A butcher by trade, his delicatessen specializes in rare cuts, usually provided by a string of handymen he lures to the apartments above his shop through a classified ad in The Hard Times, fattens up, then terminates with a generous severance. Of limbs.
The newest of these unwitting fellows is Louison (Dominique Pinon, who played that terrific thug in shades in Diva ), a down-on-his-luck clown of the Buster Keaton variety. Unaware of the temporary nature of his position, he sets to work easily, his eccentric nature fitting in well with the tenants who are living in various states of madness and desperation, unable to leave the tenuous safety of the building and thus forced to choose between unhealthy liaisons with the neighbors or solitary descents into dementia. After a day spent making those cans that moo like cows when you turn them over, Robert Kube (Rufus) pursues Mme. Interligator (Silvie Laguna), unaware that the voices in her head are driving her to increasingly elaborate suicide attempts (à la Harold and Maude). Mme. Tapioca (Anne-Marie Pisani) beats the rugs while her husband (Ticky Holgado) uses bicycle-tire patches to keep their one condom going and her deaf mother knits and knits, with tin cans tied to her ankles so she can always be found. The tenant known only as Frog Man (Howard Vernon) maintains his upstairs flat in ankle-deep water to accommodate the thousands of free-range frogs and snails he keeps as pets and dinner. All of them live in thrall to Clapet, and all are complicit in the clueless Louison’s imminent peril.
The only exception is Clapet’s daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), who lives in the nicest flat in the building, like Rapunzel in her tower, apart from her freakish fellow tenants. Beautiful in body and soul, she whiles away her hours playing the cello and loathing what her father has become. She is drawn to Louison’s gentle quirkiness and is determined that he will not suffer his predecessors’ fate, and so she sneaks out to contact the Troglodists, the guerilla resistance living in the sewers, offering them her father’s horde of corn if they’ll rescue Louison.
What follows is nothing short of madness. The ancillary dramas all come to their various disastrous heads at once, in a climax that is both darkly hilarious and horrifying. Some of this depends on frankly implausible coincidences, but by this point events have become so psychotic that even the highly unlikely is fair play.
In his commentary, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who directed both the disturbing Alien Resurrection  and the marvelous Amélie ) reflects on his first full-length film with affectionate self-admonition, wincing at his perceived mistakes while waxing on how wonderfully the film came together despite the typical first-feature shoestring-budget blues, and giving full props to his actors. And said actors are indeed terrific, a cast of veterans and newcomers who embody the singularity of their characters while at the same time supporting the film’s true main character: the building.
Clapet’s building is a living thing, a squat repository of postmodern Lovecraftian madness, corrupt and cancerous from without and within. It is a body, from the veinlike array of the pipes, through which everyone hears everyone else’s secrets, to the twisted spine of the central staircase. The deli is the building’s mouth and the garbage chute is, well, the garbage chute. From cellar to roof, Jeunet and co-director Marc Caro use every inch of the building, and while Jeunet laments that they failed to depict adequately the tenants’ geographical relation to one another, the lack of orientation actually enhances the sense of claustrophobia that pervades the film. We become as trapped inside this dying organism as its tenants.
Delicatessen is at all times both hideous and beautiful, the sets lovingly decked out in post-apocalyptic thrift-store decay while awash in a vague orangish/sepia tone reminiscent of the interior scenes in Blade Runner (1982). Jeunet speaks like a proud papa of their film developing process and their short-focus camerawork, which enhanced all-important facial expressions and foregrounded incidental yet crucial details. There is always something to look at in Delicatessen, even in the unsavory parts. Say what you will about the French, but few films, from any country, can boast visions this completely realized.
I’m a bad pop critic, and even I know that.