35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

“I have a lovely memory of my producer, Claudie Ossard, who came to see us in these sewers.  She’d come in Chanel suits and high heels.  It was surreal to see her among these Troglodists dripping in oil.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard, Howard Vernon

PLOT:  In the near future, parts of French society have collapsed, most Parisian buildings

are burned out husks, and citizens have turned to a barter economy.  Among the many shortages experienced by city folk is a lack of fresh meat, but one butcher always seems to have enough flesh to trade for corn, or sex.  Answering an ad for a handyman, an ex-clown arrives at the bizarre boarding house run by the butcher and begins a chaste romance with his daughter—but is he there to do odd jobs, or does the butcher have something else in mind?

Still from Delicatessen (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first of two films co-directed by Jeunet and Caro.  The pair conceived the idea for The City of Lost Children (also on the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time) first, but it was too expensive to produce.  Delicatessen could be shot on a single sound stage, cheaply, so they produced this film first.
  • In the opening titles, Caro is credited with “direction artistique,” while Jeunet is responsible for “mise en scène.”
  • Jeunet, one of three co-writers on the film, says that the idea for the story came to him because he used to rent a room above a butcher’s shop and would be awoken by the sound of the butcher sharpening his cleaver every morning.  His fiancee would joke that the landlord was killing his tenants for meat in order to convince him to move to a new apartment.
  • Caro not only refused to participate a director’s commentary, saying that he didn’t believe in them, but also requested that footage of him not be used in the behind-the-scenes segments on the DVD.  In his commentary, Jeunet implies that Caro is too self-critical, dryly suggesting Caro thought the film a failure because a barely visible garden hose was unintentionally left in one shot.
  • Delicatessen was picked as the Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival.  At home in France it won four César’s, including Best First Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Editing.
  • The original trailer for the American release simply contained the entire “bed-spring symphony” scene, with the movie’s title appearing at the end.
  • At the time of release some reputable American critics reported that the film was either co-produced or “presented by”  Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits.  It seems likely the Monty Python alum, whose early films are tonally similar to Jeunet and Caro, played some part the American distribution.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Howard Vernon’s aquatic second floor apartment, covered in a few centimeters of algae-green water and inhabited by frogs and snails who climb over all the furniture, the record player, and even over the dozing actor.  In the corner is a giant pile of discarded escargot shells.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wandering through Delicatessen is like taking a tour of a

Spanish trailer for Delicatessen

dilapidated French boarding house filled with insane tenants, most pleasantly eccentric, some downright creepy.  You peer inside each room and find something unique and discomfiting.  The film is filled with bizarre characters and absurd comic interludes, set in a decaying near-future universe that is artificially “off.”

COMMENTS:  Except for Marie-Laure Dougnac’s eyes, there is no blue in Delicatessen, until the very final shot.  Almost all of the scenes are interiors, with rooms carefully color coordinated in browns, greens or reds.  When the camera does move outside, the city is covered in a sickly yellow-green smoke.  The movie was shot using a special photographic color process which saturates certain color baths and de-saturates others.  The color design is intricate and unique for each set: Julie’s room is done completely in reds, oranges and yellows; the bathroom of the schizophrenic woman is pale green, her bedroom dark green; the sewers are jet black, with improbably bright golden highlights cast by kerosene lanterns, reflecting the costume of its inhabitants (the “Troglodists,” who wear frogmen uniforms with huge halogen headlamps to see their way in their lightless realm).  Often, the directors will have the main character in a scene wear a costume with the complementary color to the rooms color scheme: the butcher’s daughter wears a green dress for her romantic meeting with new tenant Louison, which makes her figure pop into the foreground from out of the predominantly red set.

The color schemes are all unnatural and tightly controlled, creating a subliminally weird effect to the viewer—there’s something sublimely artificial and unreal about this world built by the French duo.  It’s not as if the scenario wasn’t already strange enough.  Not many movies are set in a world of the near-future in the aftermath of an unspecified disaster leaving Paris depopulated, with isolated oases of humanity surviving among the ruined skyscrapers.  The world has been reduced to a barter economy, but the utilities all work, if fitfully, at least when the story calls for them.  Television stations continue to broadcast, although they only show old black and white musical clips featuring hula girls, or circus performances.  Mail delivery somehow persists, although the postman now packs a pistol to protect himself from predators.  Running water, a key plot and visual element, continues to flow fitfully, although the hot water only comes on when you turn the handle for the cold, and vice versa.  It’s a milieu somewhat like our own, but with our normal expectations thwarted; there’s much to learn about the way this brave new world works.

A world this weird needs to be fleshed out with an equally eccentric cast of characters, and Jeunet and Caro deliver.  The hero, Louison (the putty-faced Dominique Pinon), a clown fallen on hard times and turned janitor, is impossibly good at heart, trusting that “no one is entirely evil; it’s circumstance, or they don’t realize they’ve done wrong.”   His antagonist, the butcher who does his part to solve the local meat shortage by bringing in a steady stream of handymen, is, on the other hand, entirely evil.  Louison’s would-be lover, the butcher’s chaste cellist daughter Julie, is comically nearsighted.  These three characters are the least eccentric inhabitants of the boarding house above the delicatessen, which forms its own self-contained, self-sufficient society.  Louison’s new neighbors are the Tapiocas, a family with two meddlesome kids, a father who recycles condoms by putting bicycle patches on them, a practical mom struggling to put food on the table no matter the source, and a senile grandmother with cans tied to her ankles so the family will know where she is when she wanders off; a couple of men who spend their days making little cylinders that emit a noise somewhere between a sheep’s baa and a cow’s moo; an old man who has flooded his apartment so he can raise snails to eat; and the Troglodists, a (literally) underground resistance (resisting what?) movement of vegetarian frogmen.

Then there is Aurore, a schizophrenic tenant tortured by the voices she hears, who invents bizarre schemes to off herself that would seem needlessly indirect and elaborate to Wile E. Coyote.  Her first attempt involves a bathtub, a lamp, a bolt of cloth, a sewing machine, and a doorbell; after this fails, she tries to cover her bases by setting a trap for herself that utilizes a gun, a Molotov cocktail, a lighted stove, a bottle of pills and a noose. Jeunet loves to create such Rube Goldbergesque devices and schemes, and his penchant for roundabout mechanics would again manifest itself in the duo’s followup film, The City of Lost Children.

Despite its dip into black comedy via the futile suicide attempts and the cannibalism subtext, Delicatessen‘s comedy is surprisingly light and clownish, owing a great debt to the physicality of silent comedians and Jacques Tati.  Punchlines are few and far between; instead, the film delights in creating clever and elaborate visual gags.  The most famous of these is the two minute bravura sequence where the squeaking bed springs as the butcher pleasures himself on top of his mistress set the tempo for the entire house’s activity: a bicycle pump, cello practice, beating a dusty rug and painting the ceiling all magically synchronize to the beat of copulation, and all end with a separate climax.

Caro’s interior sets are all delightfully jumbled, with rooms cluttered with kitschy nostalgic brick-a-brack.  In fact, the entire movie is jumbled, full of elements that don’t entirely cohere.  It’s not clear what the movie strives to be.  It’s not consistently funny enough to be a riotous comedy, or dark enough to be a dystopian nightmare.  Some suggest the possibility of a political allegory, with the carnivorous boarding house representing capitalism and the bumbling vegetarian Troglodists socialism, but if so, the symbolism is half-hearted and there’s no illumination to be gleaned from it.  Although the plot points form a line by the end, Delicatessen doesn’t really seem to be about telling a story, either; it’s too digressive, losing momentum when it chooses to follow whatever idea (like the suicidal tenant) that catches the directors’ interest at the moment.  Ultimately, like the menagerie of odd boarding house residents, the movie works best as a collection of impressively eccentric individual sets and sequences.

In Delicatessen, Jeunet and Caro work hard to create a hermetically sealed artistic universe.  Like the convenient city services that function when the story needs them, reality world only intrudes into their fantasy universe out of necessity.  The natural world is absent from these dreary interiors, except when the directors transform it to suit their own needs: the smoky yellow sky, the pond in an apartment, the staircase that becomes a waterfall.  But in the very last scene, an exterior rooftop shot, nature is somewhat restored; the smog dissipates, and we see sunlight and a blue sky.  After all, when was the last time you saw a movie without any blue in it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Beautifully textured, cleverly scripted and eerily shot (often with a wideangle lens making characters look even weirder), Delicatessan [sic] is a zany little film that’s a startling and clever debut…”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“…welds comedy and magic into a bizarre, grotesque fantasy of an oddball dystopian future.  The directors are constantly playing curveball with the audience’s expectations and nothing can prepare you for the sheer weirdness of it all.”–Matt Ford, BBC (DVD)

“…just a lot of flashy technique involving decor, some glib allegorical flourishes, and the obligatory studied film-school weirdness.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

IMDB LINK: Delicatessen (1991)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Delicatessen at The Art of the Title Sequence – See the excellent opening credit sequence, where the camera pans over a pile of junk on which the names of the crew are written (the cinematographer’s name appears on a discarded camera, the composer’s name on a broken record).

DVD INFO:  Released after Amélie became an unexpected hit, the Lions Gate special edition DVD (buy) contains an insightful commentary by Jeunet (in French).  Also included is “Fine Cooked Meats: A Nod to Delicatessan, ” 13 minutes of un-narrated behind-the-scenes footage from the production; “The Archives of Jean-Pierre Jeunet,” which include screen tests for Pinon and Dougnac and the actors rehearsals of scenes (including an unused séance scene); a photo gallery; and the American theatrical trailer along with French television teasers (each consisting of an entire unedited short scene).

UPDATE 9/16/2010: StudioCanal released a Blu-ray (buy); all of the extras from the Lionsgate DVD were carried over, and an additional one hour retrospective featurette has been added.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Filipe A.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “35. DELICATESSEN (1991)”

  1. I think there is a point to this movie; that there is positivity and hope even in the bleakest and most hopeless seeming times and situations. That’s what our hero represents. This is one of the movies I watch when I’m in need of something uplifting.

  2. This is a fine review, but I’d like to to bring up the second of the two “bedspring” sequences, where we find Louison at work as the apartment tower’s handyman. Moving beyond the exercise in rhythm that the first (and more elaborate) scene acts as, this one lends itself to further endearing the hero to us as well as showing his ability to fix the problems illustrated in the more manic (and, in its Warner Bros. way, more brutal) montage. Louison’s soft-spoken, patient approach to the troublesome springs results in fixing the underlying problem of the dissonant squeakiness of the place – in contrast to the former’s result in adding to the breakdown of parts and minds.

    In the narrow sub-genre of Happiness-in-the-face-of-Dystopia, “Delicatessen” plays as a chamber ensemble counterpart to “Brazil’s” full-blown orchestra.

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  4. I’m curious about the perception of this as being “in the near future,” as it seemed clear to me this takes place in the WWII time frame in a kind of famine-ridden alternate universe. The bombed-out look of things, the hairstyles and clothing, the music and its media, the period films shown, etc., all point to that. What did I miss?

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