Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical post-apocalyptic black comedy filters lavish idiosyncrasies through an oppressive yellow hue; leaving the viewer captivated by a highly unbloodied microcosm of cannibalism and deceitful relationships. Throw in a few underground vegetarian rebels and you’ve got a right ol’ knees up.
"They ate him! Can you believe that? They ate him!"
Jeunet’s swift directorial style is aided by a pacey and witty script. Penned by Marc Caro (a commonplace Jeunet conspirator), Gilles Adrien, and Jean-Pierre himself, Delicatessen explores a surrealist alternate timeline but it never troubles itself with the cause of the apocalypse.
Set in a a tenement building above an autocratic Delicatessen the apocalyptic fallout is evident as every shot is tinged with an oppressive yellow and brown hue. In a corn dominated economy where food is scarce Clapet the Butcher rules with a shiny cleaver serving up meaty luxuries to the tenants living above. But if the film isn’t concerned with the apocalypse then what are we talking about?
Think, 'optimistic philosophy finding good in bad.' Biscuits with tea.
Fans of a particular film from a recognised director often expect to find the same style in earlier and future filmography. This uncompromising expectation often fuels a paragraph or two in film criticism. My decision to view Delicatessen sprang from an unerring appreciation and fondness of Amélie, a film 10 years its junior. I was excited to see what Jeunet produced in his earlier years and to my surprise they are of a wholly different tone.
However, true to Jeunet’s trademark style, Delicatessen is awash with intricate character idiosyncrasies that scream originality and never get bogged down by plot development.
Absorbed by fear Delicatessen opens with the hegemonic Clapet sharpening his butcher knife in a loud, controlling and oppressive manner. The atmosphere is eerie and the hallways are quiet bar a frightened little creature covered in rubbish. This fearful character is attempting to flee the tyrannical Clapet and his butchery in a garbage can destined for unknown pastures. But his attempt, although masterfully planned out, is futile – Slash, dash, stick ‘im in the mash.
The essence of this black comedy is established from the off leading to a captivating tale of unexpected happenings, futility, and innovation that literally floods the viewer with notions of anti-autocacy and perverse dependency. But Delicatessen can never be branded a political commentary or social satire. No, it’s charm rests in the attention to film making and storytelling rather than encouraging a subliminal reading with suggestive connotations.
The simplicity of the story is refreshing. It doesn’t linger with exposition and every scene serves a purpose. There’s no one there to tell you that Clapet butchers people and sells them to his tenants like a domesticated but ruthless Sweeney Todd.
Into this interconnected microcosm of post-apocalyptic society comes a retired circus clown and all round handyman responding to Clapet’s alluring newspaper advertisement. Louison, played by Dominique Pinon later to feature in Amélie, arrives with no money and no shoes but is soon, fortunately in Louison’s eyes, taken on board. Clapet plans to fatten him up for the slaughter but Louison isn’t to know that. However, it soon becomes clear that everyone but Louison is aware of the fate that awaits him.
When he meets Julie, Clapet’s myopic daughter and cellist, Jeunet’s delicate navigation of the emotional psyche, toying with awkwardness, embrassment, and love, draws Louison and Julie closer together. In a beautiful touching moment Julie explains that because of her sight “everything is foggy.” Louison honestly and sympathetically reveals he “could get lost in it.” Anywhere else and this sequence would feel out of place, clichéd, perhaps even spur the vomiting green emoji on a teenagers WhatsApp conversation. But Jeunet works it into a post-apocalyptic black comedy effortlessly.
Jeunet’s originality and fluidity both behind the camera and in his writing shine through in this debut feature film. Delicatessen holds no secrets and never pretends to be something it’s not. While films of today opt to tease fans with slight reveals, non-linear trailers and alluring dialogue both Caro and Jeunet opted for a more original approach with their choice of trailer.
Barely a quarter into the film we’re treated to one of the marvels of Delicatessen, a comic montage sequence executed perfectly to portray the interconnectedness of the tenants and unrelenting dependency on Clapet the Butcher. As Clapet and his mistress engage in a little harmless coitus the tenement building stays in time with the squeak of the springs. Julie practices her cello, a rug is beaten within an inch of its life, a tyre is pumped, animal calls are crafted and Louison paints a ceiling. Like a well oiled orchestra the scene builds to a frightening cruscendo. Clapet’s immodest orgasm sounds the end of the day’s activities. The bike tyre explodes, a string from Julie’s cello flings off into the air and Louison falls from his ladder; all of which represent a moment of synchronicity. The nuance of the entire sequence is let down by an overt montage selection that highlights the similarity between the sequence and a metronome. But such a slight qualm does nothing to detract from the overall enjoyment gained from this particular moment.
Opting to show an entire sequence from their film was brave. But it does leave an indelible image and want to relive the sequence again and discover how it fits into the grand scheme of Jeunet’s tasty little treat.
Like a ball on a string Delicatessen is free to bounce around and explore but it’s always controlled. The whimsy of Jeunet never strays far from originality in the characters, interactions, shot selection and mise-en-scène. Caro and Jeunet have crafted a delightfully Brilliant piece of french cinema that aspiring film makers could learn from.
As the oppressive yellow mist lifts and we’re left with Julie and Louison perched in red on the quiet rooftop playing us out Delicatessen humours a rather dark and indelicate subject with a delicately deft comic touch.
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