#149 Delicatessen

(1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro)

“Nobody is entirely evil; it’s just circumstances that make them evil”

We’ve seen French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the blog before, with his quirky romantic comedy Amelie, which I loved. So here’s another movie of his, made ten years before. Can we expect another sweet little comedy with loveable characters and endearing situations?

The answer is no. Delicatessen is a black comedy about cannibalism in a dystopian future.

The plot is this: in a post-apocalyptic version of France, food supplies are running short and grain is a form of currency. In a run-down apartment building, the landlord Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) runs a butcher’s shop, where he lures in outsiders through job opportunities and then murders them to serve as meat for his assorted tenants. His latest victim is out-of-work clown Louison (Dominique Pinon), who proves himself a useful asset and charming friend to the tenants, and this makes Clapet hesitant to serve him up. But it’s only a matter of time…

I’d heard a bit about the movie before seeing it, and had heard about the cannibalism aspect, but was worried it was a spoiler. However, the movie makes it clear that cannibalism is a thing that goes on in this strange world straight from the outset, as we see the previous tenant attempting escape in a dustbin before being attacked with a cleaver. It’s a strange thing to know this throughout the movie, but then again, this is a strange movie.

In fact, much of the movie is a comedy. A bleak, surreal comedy, sure, but a comedy all the same. The initial escape at the start of the movie has a distinct element of slapstick about it, and there are enough silly over-the-top moments to make the whole thing bizarre when you remember that the central theme of the film is killing and eating other human beings due to limited resources.

It’s difficult to know what to say about Delicatessen, in fact. It’s so out there that only Terry Gilliam movies compare to it, and his movies are equally baffling, as I discovered when I reviewed Brazil.

But I’ll try. Let’s look at it from separate angles. How does the movie work as a sci-fi dystopia piece? Sadly, not that well, it has to be said. Bar the dark, brooding establishing shot of a dilapidated Paris and the brief references to the land being barren and unable to grow anything, the movie feels distinctly old. In fact, the very Parisian aesthetic is the key connection between this and Amelie, clearly showing the director’s style. But it’s so easy to forget that this is supposed to be the future when everything feels so much like it’s in the past.

Some of the concepts aren’t that well explained either. There are implications of civilisation breaking down, but the presence of television and newspapers, for example, call this into question. There are references to the butcher bringing people in from other areas because of their attitudes, but we don’t really know what those attitudes are and what the butcher really has against them. The fact that the vegetarians living underground have stockpiles of corn is never really explained either, since the references to the dwindled food supply clearly state that things can’t grow anymore.

But does it work as a comedy? Yes it does, as long as you like black comedy. There’s a clear Terry Gilliam influence at work here, and just like, say, Brazil, there is plenty of dark stuff in store, all played for laughs. The rebel group are played in a very slapstick way, there are numerous over-the-top suicide attempts made by one character that get increasingly ludicrous and complex, and Louison’s ignorance of what’s going on around him is meant to be funny, not terrifying.

But of course, the comedy can be uncomfortable due to the subject matter, and this is what creates a great sense of unease as you watch Delicatessen. That said, it’s a very well-made film. The performances are excellent, and visually it’s fantastic, with the same care and attention given to everything that Amelie had. The world feels vivid and alive, despite it being so bleak.

It’s not for everyone, of course. It has the potential to scare off some audience members with its weirdness, but stick with it and you’ll find a good, quirky bit of entertainment here.

Starring Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus & Karin Viard
Written by Gilles Adrien, Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Produced by Claude Ossard
Music by Carlos D’Alessio
Cinematography by Darius Khondji
Edited by Herve Schneid

Favourite Scene: The suicide attempts, oddly enough. They were just so absurd and over the top that it was impossible not to be amused.
Scene That Bugged Me: The scene that got used as the American trailer: an extended scene where the bedsprings of a couple having sex end up syncing up with loads of other noises in the house. Impressively done, but ultimately pointless.

Watch it if: You’re a Gilliam fan and want more like it
Avoid it if: You think that cannibalism is no laughing matter

Posted on January 15, 2013, in 1990s, Comedy, France, Horror, Romance, Sci Fi and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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