...takes the gruesome, grisly business of murder and cannibalism and makes of it something quite poetic and quite funny.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Much is made on the keep case of this film coming from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of "Amelie." What isn't mentioned is that the director made the film a full decade before he made "Amelie," which is probably why it has never appeared on DVD before now. In any case, this 1991 surreal black comedy, "Delicatessen," is bizarre enough to warrant a look.

Jeunet has for years been one of cinema's more creative filmmakers, with movies like "City of Lost Children," "Alien Resurrection," and "A Very Long Engagement" to his credit besides "Amelie." So it's no surprise that "Delicatessen" is a little something out of the ordinary. Well, OK, the movie is downright bizarre. But it's fun.

The story is set in the kind of future postapocalyptic world that was so popular in movies of the 1980s and early 90s, only you won't find Mel Gibson anywhere in sight. Instead, you'll find that people have turned to cannibalism as a matter of course. They eat each other without much thought because meat has become so scarce.

Enter the butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who runs a small delicatessen and rooming house in a bombed-out French suburb. He finds a steady market for his "product," the local townspeople trading beans, corn, and clothing for the meat he serves up. Only the meat is human. The butcher recruits new victims by placing advertisements in the newspaper for someone to work as a handyman, with payment in room and board. Then, after the applicant moves in, the butcher kills him and divides the meat up between his tenants and his regular paying customers. Yes, the building's other tenants are well aware of this scheme, yet the only one who seems to mind is the butcher's daughter, Julie (Marie-Laurie Dougnac).

Jeunet says on the commentary track that he got the idea for the picture when he and his fiancée heard some chopping noises in the flat above theirs. She teasingly said it sounded like somebody chopping up the tenants and that the murderer would be coming after them next. Jeunet took it from there.

Anyway, enter Louison, a former circus clown played by the wonderfully rubber-faced Dominque Pinion. Louison answers Clapet's ad, taking a job and a room from the butcher, not knowing he is being groomed as fodder for the rest of the tenants. Louison used to be part of the circus act of Stan and Livingstone, until the country went mad and people ate his partner.

Now, here's the thing: Not long after Louison's arrival, the butcher's daughter falls for him. Their best scene together concerns the first time she invites him to her room for tea. She's nearsighted, but she takes her glasses off to impress him, with comically disastrous results ("I buy two of everything because I break things," she tells him). Moreover, she knows what her father is up to, and she tries to warn and save her new friend, incidents that make up the bulk of the story.

The rest of the film concerns various oddball characters who live in Clapet's rooming house: His voluptuous mistress (Karen Viard), who is also attracted to Louison; a deaf old granny; two mischievous little boys; a man who raises frogs and snails to eat and literally lives with them in the cellar; a woman who hears mysterious voices urging her to commit suicide; and a couple of fellows who make toy boxes with animal sounds in them.

Then, there are the Troglodists, members of a goofy underground movement, literally, bent on overthrowing the country's current regime and instituting vegetarianism. The whole thing--the atmosphere, the future society, the use of 1950s' style clothing and appliances, the listening through connecting pipes in the building, the peculiar characters--all of it reminded me of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," made a few years earlier. (In fact, I've read that Gilliam helped promote "Delicatessen" when it first appeared, which doesn't surprise me in the least.)

The movie gets stranger as it goes along, culminating in a daring but rather silly rescue attempt of Louison from the butcher's vile clutches. The color scheme is made up almost entirely of muted earth colors. The background score is otherworldly, a duet by Julie and Louison on cello and musical saw being downright eerie, but fascinating. And there is a scene where Louison is trying to fix the butcher's bedsprings, with the butcher's mistress helping him, that is near sidesplitting.

As he did in "Amelie," Jeunet fashions a sweet, gentle story out of circumstances that would not on the surface admit of such treatment. In the case of "Delicatessen," he takes the gruesome, grisly business of murder and cannibalism and makes of it something quite poetic and quite funny.

The colors Jeunet chose for this film are of his own peculiar whim, leaning heavily to yellows, golds, browns, greens, and black. If you remember the pastel arrangement of "Amelie," you'll get the idea. In any case, most of the movie's 1.85:1 aspect ratio is represented fairly well on the DVD, the only major distraction being an odd flickering in a couple of the scenes. I do not know if the flicker is intentional, to create some sort of atmosphere, or if it is a defect of the anamorphic transfer. Beyond that, there is a touch of grain and a small degree of softness to the overall image.

The keep case announces the audio as Dolby Surround, which translated means Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The amount of surround information you hear will depend on your Dolby Pro Logic or other surround-sound processor. I didn't notice much in the way of rear-channel action except a little musical ambience on occasion. Otherwise, the front-channel stereo spread is more than sufficient, and the sonic environment is pleasantly warm and comfortable.

There are three primary extras. The first is an audio commentary by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, spoken in French, for which unless you speak French you will need to select the appropriate subtitles. The second item is a thirteen-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, "Fine Cooked Meats: A nod to Delicatessen," which is actually above average as far as these things go and is presented in normal color. The third extra is an eight-minute item, "The Archives of Jean-Pierre Jeunet," that gives us some rehearsal footage from the film as well as a few unfinished scenes.

The bonus features conclude with eighteen scene selections, and a chapter insert; a theatrical trailer and a series of teasers; French as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Like a lot of French comedy, "Delicatessen" tends to get a bit too slapstick and harebrained at times for my taste, especially toward the end. I preferred the more subtle black humor of the movie's surreal first half. Nevertheless, that Jeunet could make a film so whimsical on so grotesque a subject is in itself an accomplishment, and the film is ultimately quite magical. What's more, after seeing the movie, you'll probably never think of a delicatessen in quite the same way again.


Film Value