Delicatessen (1991)



Marc Caro/Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Dominique Pinon (Louison), Marie-Laure Dougnac (Julie Clapet), Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Clapet), Ticky Holgado (Marcel Tapioca), Anne-Marie Pisani (Madame Tapioca), Rufus (Robert Kube), Silvie Laguna (Aurore Interligator), Jean-Francois Perrier (Francis Interligator), Howard Vernon (Frog Man), Chick Ortega (Postman), Jacques Mathou (Roger). Karen Viard (Mademoiselle Plusse)

Undefined (Food shortages)

“The story is centered on a microcosm of a post-apocalyptic society where food is so rare it’s invaluable and is used as currency. The story centers on an apartment building with a delicatessen on the ground floor. The owner of the eatery also owns the apartment building and he is in need of a new maintenance man since the original “mysteriously” disappeared. A former clown applies for the job and the butcher’s intent is to have him work for a little while and then serve him to quirky tenants who pay the butcher in, of course, grain. The clown and butcher’s daughter fall in love and she tries to foil her father’s plans by contacting the “troglodytes”, a grain eating sub-group of society who live entirely underground. The “trogs” are possibly the most sensible of the lot, as they see food as food and not money.” – Anonymous,

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is famous for two things: he’s the guy who directed Amelie and he’s the guy who made the most polarizing Alien movie of the series.  If you’re a film geek then you probably also know him as the co-director of City of the Lost Children, but before he and Marc Caro could get City off the ground they switched to a lower-budget project about a butcher who owned an apartment building and was cutting up his tenants to sell in his shop.  This project materialized as Delicatessen.

If you’re not a film geek but you shopped in Best Buy around Halloween of 2007 then you likely saw this movie tucked in amongst all the other cheapo horror DVDs on that display table they keep at the center of the store.  If you’re like me you looked it up, watched the trailer, read a bunch of unfavorable reviews, bought a copy of C.H.U.D. instead, and got drunk on supermarket wine in your bedroom/aunt’s attic.

Those unfavorable reviews were wrong, Best Buy probably shouldn’t have put this movie in the horror section, you shouldn’t have dismissed the movie because it didn’t look gory enough, and no good can come of drinking an entire bottle of wine that costs $3 you fucking idiot!  What was I talking about?

Delicatessen is technically, maybe, if you squint really hard, a horror comedy; but that’s pigeonholing it.  The problem is that it doesn’t really fit in any one genre; it’s a romantic comedy but it’s very dark, but it’s not violent or scary enough to be horror, and romantic comedy is far too broad a description of the story.  It’s a fucking French film and it farts in the general direction of your understanding of cinematic conventions and genres you American pig, now sit down and shut up. *spits*

I’ve always felt kind of bad for dismissing this movie all those years ago and I’ve always been wanting to finally see it but my backlog of stuff to watch/read is huge and I really don’t care for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films (the ones I have seen, so basically just Alien Resurrection and Amelie), but now I have an obligation and it was as good an excuse as any to finally check it out.  2007 me was a fool; I already knew this but you just can’t have enough evidence.

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Delicatessen concerns a bombed-out apartment building somewhere in France in a distant future where some cataclysmic event has caused apparently all of the plants to die.  Food is scarce and all the animals have long been eaten so man is turning on man to feed himself and survive another day.  Our apartment building is over the titular delicatessen where the owner/butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) brings in patsies with an ad for a live-in handyman and cuts them up into meat which he sells to his tenants for seed grain, which is the currency of the land.

Our hero is Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former clown who left the trade when his monkey partner was eaten, is looking for a place to settle down while the world goes mad.  Louison answers the butcher’s ad and begins his work as the building’s handyman where he develops a camaraderie with the butcher’s wife (Karen Viarde) and a romantic relationship with his daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac.)

Julie is conflicted because she loves Louison but knows what will happen to him if he stays, so she goes underground to find a group of sewer-dwelling resistance fighting vegans called Troglodytes to get Louison out of the building in return for her father’s hoard of grain.

That simple plot is padded out by subplots involving the other tenants of the building, which include a woman tormented by voices in her head which driver her to attempt suicide in escalatingly absurd and convoluted manners, two old men who manufacture little cylinders that make sheep noises when you turn them upside down, a man who thinks he is a frog and lives in a flooded apartment crawling with snails and constantly listens to opera music at a high volume, and two mischievous little boys that steal panties and frogs and whatnot.

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Delicatessen is a wild surreal ride of a movie and there’s not a whole lot like it.  Even for Jeunet/Caro this feels too surreal and madcap like a weird marriage of Tim Burton’s and Alex de la Iglesia’s (The Last Circus, Witching and Bitching) sensibilities in a movie that is unquestionably French.

The details and colors are lavish and everything looks and feels important and textured and special.  It fells like you’re touching everything as you watch it and Jeunet/Caro never shy away from breathtaking, surrealistic setups like an escape plan that involves filling an entire bathroom with water or the aforementioned swamped apartment covered in snails and bullfrogs.  Jeunet also has Walter Hill’s eye for actors with captivating faces.  Pick any random member of the cast and I swear I cold just stare at a picture of them for hours.

There’s even weird Stomp-esque musical vignettes, both centering around creaking bed springs, that serve as twee comedic set-pieces.  For a movie with such a gruesome premise it’s a very light and bouyant sort of film.  When we do get down to brass tacks the violence is almost entirely bloodless and even the most squeamish viewer would barely bat an eye.

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Dominique Pinon seems an odd choice as a romantic lead at first.  Sure he looks a little like Jude Law but he also looks a whole lot like Klaus Kinski.  Fortunately Pinon may have been cursed with Kinski’s looks but not his personality so his charm makes him a believable dashing young hero for our almost vaudevillian story.  Pinon’s talents particularly pay off in showing off Louison’s physical abilities as a clown which are used both to engender sentiment toward his character and as a plot device used later in the film.

Marie-Laure Dougnac is similarly wonderful as Pinon’s foil.  Julie is a delight and her seriousness and competence serve as a nice foil to Louison’s clumsy acrobatic buffoonery; though this dynamic is amusingly reversed in an early scene where she invites him up for a meal and attempts to charm him without her glasses on, causing Louison to scramble to try and keep her from spilling tea or knocking things over.

Jean-Claude Dreyfus is the villain of the picture and has an imposing goofiness about him.  He plays a very serious character but Dreyfus knows when to mug for the camera with wacky faces and exaggerated acting which makes his eventual confrontation with Louison a joy to watch for reasons of both tension and comedy.

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Now, I’m going to talk about the meaning of this movie some and that’s going to require me to spoil the ending so just skip on down past the next picture if you don’t want to know.

The troglodytes agree to help Julie because she promises to give them her father’s stash of currency, which is seed grain such as corn and lentils and the like.  The butcher sees the grain as money, but for the vegetarian troglodytes it’s just food.  After the death of her father and all other opposition, we join Louison and Julie on the roof as they smile and play a cello/saw duet and the music swells romantically as we fade out.

The problem is, what are they going to eat?  The troglodytes took all the seeds, though it’s possible they left some out of graciousness.  The point remains, though, their days are numbered as nothing is growing and there’s no meat left that isn’t human.  The butcher did some awful things but he was providing food to his tenants, where is that going to come from now that no-one’s willing to bait the trap and kill whoever comes?  There’s not a final shot of a plant growing from the soil to give us hope, as far as we know the famine is still on and our heroes are going to die a slow agonizing death of hunger.

But that may also be the point.  The butcher’s methods were saving the lives of everyone, but at what cost?  Louison and Julie don’t want to hurt people and they don’t seem to think the end was worth the means.  They are likely aware of their doomed nature and have chosen to live rather than survive, as happily and for as long as they can without resorting to their more base instincts.  This idea is barely mentioned and not explored to any great depth but it’s a nice thought to fade out on as our happy couple share in the dawning of a new day (both symbolically and literally) together.

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As someone who doesn’t much care for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s style of film-making (yes, I know I need to watch City of Lost Children, it’s on my list which we have already established is quite long) I found Delicatessen fun, astonishing, and interesting.  It lacks in depth somewhat but makes up for it with panache and just enough gravitas to make it really compelling.

Don’t be 2007 Ryan Covey.  Delicatessen is a fine movie and $3 supermarket wine is for hobos and teenagers.

Delicatessen can be found on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Instant through Amazon.

“Look at that baby go! It’s going all the way to Tia-fucking-juana. “

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