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Bon Appetite!

Jul 9, 2004 (Updated Feb 3, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Original (though bleak) futuristic vision, magnificent sets and artwork, strong performances, horror and laughs

Cons:Not for those easily grossed out by demented black humor

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended for those with a taste for human flesh! Or, for absurdist, surreal, farcical horror.

Delicatessan, a pleasingly over-the-top, absurdist visual extravaganza, was a collaboration between directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro and a first feature for both. Jeunet went on to make such films as The City of Lost Children (1995) and the beloved and justly acclaimed Amélie (2001). Marc Caro collaborated with Jeunet on The City of Lost Children as well. Jeunet was the master behind the performance direction while Caro was the genius behind the artwork. Delicatessen was based on a wacky screenplay by Gilles Adrien – who cut his teeth as a writer of comic books. Which shows!

Delicatessen is more of an absurdist, surreal, horror film and romance than a comedy although it does have its hilarious moments. It places us in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world reduced to subsistence living because all kinds of food have become extremely scarce and meat nonexistent – except on the frames of human beings. The drive for survival has caused society to rethink its views in regards to cannibalism. Into this bizarre world walks an heroic clown who falls in love with the butcher’s daughter. The butcher, however, has the clown in mind as the next specialty of the house.

The Story: The film opens somewhere in France sometime in a not-too-distant gloomy future. We observe, in an austere mist-shrouded gothic atmosphere, an apartment block where one building remains erect amidst crumbling ruins. Although the circumstances leading to this dystopia are unspecified, apparently either war or an ecological disaster has destroyed life as we know it today and resulted in all-pervasive famine and a nearly meatless society.

As the butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) ominously sharpens his knives and cleavers, a terrified man (billed simply as “Tried to Escape” (Pascal Benezech)), anticipating the fate intended for him, tries desperately to devise an escape. He has dressed himself up in old newspapers from head to foot, with just a peep hole for his bulging eyeballs. He climbs into a garbage can hoping to be carted off to safety in the garbage truck. Unfortunately for him, when a lit cigarette is tossed into his trash can, he emits a slight exclamation, causing the butcher to look inside and apply his cleaver decisively. The next day, the boarders are all lined up for a fresh supply of meat.

We learn that in many locales, people have resorted to drawing straws to determine who will be consumed. In Clapet’s boarding house, however, Clapet has devised an ingenious if perverse alternative. He advertises for a fix-it man and, after working him for a few days on routine maintenance tasks, slaughters the hapless fellow, serving him up to his renters in his first floor deli. This arrangement is quite satisfactory to the renters who are thereby spared the ignominy of drawing straws among themselves. Only the butcher’s daughter, Julie Clapet (Marie-Laure Dougnac), objects to the arrangement. She has a propensity for falling in love with each handyman in succession. Besides, something about her father’s “profession” does not appeal to her aesthetic sensibilities.

Soon, the next applicant for the opening of handyman arrives in the form of Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former clown but now desperately out of work. Louison has to pay the taxi driver with his shoes and is thereafter seen walking about in his former clown shoes, with their extended toes. Soon, the nearsighted, Jodie Foster-like Julie is smitten with the newcomer and vice versa. She invites him to her room where they make beautiful music together – not in the sly, metaphorical sense but in actuality. She plays the cello and he the musical saw.

Gradually, we are introduced to a bizarre cast of characters who reside in Clapet’s boarding house. There is the Tapioca family, consisting of the father, Marcel (Ticky Hidalgo), his large wife, Madame Tapioca (Anne-Marie Pisani), his mother-in-law, The Grandmother (Edith Kerr), and the two Young Rascals (Boban Janevski and Mikael Todds). Marcel is jobless but gets by on black-marketeering, selling such useful items as a rat-call (makes sounds like a female rat in heat) and a BS-detector (that whirrs when anyone spins a falsehood). Grammy Tapioca sits knitting quietly but is ultimately “sacrificed” (because she has reached the agreed-upon age limit and will soon be inedible). In her climactic scene, she stares impassively as the butcher hovers over her with his cleaver until she spots a spider right over the slaughter-man’s head – then she screams! Madame Tapioca is distraught that her dear mother has been cleaved – but nevertheless accepts her cut of the meat. She will say her goodbyes to her mother over dinner! The presence of the Young Rascals turns out to be a devilishly creative tactic for contrasting the horrors of the futuristic world of Delicatessen with a view of life from the eyes of the innocent. The Young Rascals serve as a stand-in, of sorts, for the perspective of the audience. They are constantly engaged in pranks or theft but also provide an audience for Louison’s performances, such as when he entertains them with an assortment of soap bubbles, some filled with smoke from a cigarette confiscated by Louison from the boys.

In one apartment resides a married couple comprised of Interligator (Jean François Perrier) and his wife Aurore Interligator (Silvie Laguna). He is apparently independently wealthy and can pay “cash” for his meat supply. He dresses in a smart-looking, silk smoking jacket, watches television a lot, and is entirely unexcitable. His wife, by contrast, is a nervous wreck. She hears voices that say awful things to her while encouraging her to commit suicide. God know she tries, but despite her best efforts is unable to make it happen. She rigs up Kafkaesque devices to accomplish the foul deed, only to be foiled time and time again. She invites a lover over but rigs up the door bell to apply current to the bath in which she is immersed, but gets tingled and titillated rather than fried. Later (in my favorite scene of the entire film), Aurore has staged what should, by all rights, be her final act. A quadruple suicide – not four victims but one victim with four deaths so that there will be no doubt whatsoever! She has rigged a rifle so that it is aimed at her and will be triggered when her husband opens the door. Meanwhile she has sprinkled a flammable substance all around the room and lit a fuse. Then, she climbs up on a chair directly in front of the rifle and places a noose around her neck. In one hand, she holds a plethora of pills and in the other a glass of water. Her obvious intent is to overdose, get blown to bits by the rifle, hang herself, and burn the place down all at once! She calls to her husband and immediately shoves the pills into her mouth. He enters but jars the rifle so that it instead shoots the rope above the noose, causing Aurore to fall to the floor, popping the pills out of her mouth as she lands, while the glass of water extinguishes the fuse! It is a priceless bit of slapstick!

Next door, Roger Kube (Jacques Mathou) and Robert Kube (Rufus) are two brothers who make their living manufacturing little half-can shaped toys that go “baaaaaaah” when inverted, imitating the bleating of a lamb. Robert is smitten with his neighor’s wife, Aurore. After all, there aren’t a lot of women to go around. He wants to romance her and is distraught over her psychotic tendencies. It turns out that brother Roger is the cause of Aurore’s mental instability. Roger is the actual source of the voices that Aurore hears. He whispers to her through the system of pipes that connect the various apartments. It seems that Roger is jealous of his brother’s romantic interest in her.

In a basement apartment lives the Frog Man (Howard Vernon). He lives in about a foot of water so that he can grow frogs and snails and other gross “delicacies” which serve as his food supply. Occasionally, the Young Rascals attempt to steal some of his goodies with a fish net inserted through a grail window.

Clapet has a live-in girlfriend, Mademoiselle Pluss (Karin Viard), who provides for his sexual needs in exchange for food. The bed that Clapen and Mademoiselle Pluss share has a squeaky spring and when they are going at it, the rhythm of the squeaks emanates throughout the boarding house. Soon, the activities of every person in the boarding house have been synchronized to the rhythm of Clapet’s lovemaking: Grammy’s knitting, Julie’s cello practice, Louison’s painting, Robert and Robert’s toy making, and Madame Tapioca’s rug-beating. Mademoiselle is very sexy and basically good-hearted as well. She has a couple of outstanding scenes with Louison. In one, Louison has been ordered to fix the squeaking springs, but he needs help identifying which spring is the culprit and the springs only squeak with the weight of two bounding up and down. Mademoiselle Pluss and Louison sit aside one another, fully clothed of course, bouncing up and down in perfect synchrony, looking rather pleased. Later, Louison asks Mademoiselle Pluss to help him try out his new act (his former partner, Dr. Livingston (a chimp) had, unfortunately, been eaten). It is a wonderful bit of choreographed dancing which, however, triggers jealousy on the part of Julie when she walks in on them.

Besides Clapet, the other “heavy” in this film is The Postman (Chick Ortega). He carries a gun because mail theft has become a problem in this futuristic society. He also has the hots for Julie and if he can’t woo her, he’ll be just as happy to rape her.

Enter the Troglodytes, a small army of rebel vegetarians who live underground, steal beans and lentils from the surface dwellers, and attempt to rescue unfortunate surface dwellers who have been earmarked for consumption. Julie enlists their help by striking a bargain with them. They can have her father’s corn supply (money to him, food for them) in exchange for rescuing Louison. The Troglodytes are decent enough sorts but, unfortunately, highly incompetent. They end up kidnapping Mademoiselle Pluss instead of Louison. It is only after careful inspection (boob fondling) that these dense characters are able to ensure themselves that the person they have kidnapped is a female rather than a male.

Themes: Delicatessen is clearly more style than substance, but is not totally devoid of “message” or, at least, message fragments. In its morally degenerate society, Louison and Julie represent love, kindness, and caring for one another and, in the end, good does triumph over evil – as it should! Louison and Julie also represent appreciation of the arts and culture – music and performance (Louison was an accomplished clown). The final scene of the film has the two Young Rascals absorbing the influence of Louison and Julie and taking up the musical saw themselves. So, despite the bleak depiction of modern life, the message of Delicatessen is ultimately a hopeful one. The Troglodytes also represent something of a morally-based alternative to cannibalism.

Production Values: Whatever one might think about the thematic material of Delicatessen, there is just no denying that it achieves a very high level of production standards. It is creative, original, features extraordinary sets and art work, striking cinematography, is brilliantly paced, and has excellent performances. Delicatessen is something of a masterpiece of surreal cinematography, with awe-inspiring sets of exquisite detail. Although the film is in full color, the opening ten minutes or so looks mostly black-and-white, with just some pale flesh hues and deep browns distinguishing the film from true monochrome, creating a gothic foreboding. The opening credits are as stylistically creative as any I’ve ever seen. The interior of Clapet’s boarding house, where almost all of the action ensues, is an eerie labyrinth of pipes, stairwells, chimneys, door, and hallways that is unmistakably different than anything we see in our world today.

Jeunet and Caro made superb use of color to distinguish their characters. Mademoiselle Pluss is decked out in provocative whorish scarlet outfits, Louison in bright yellows and greens, Julie in demure outfits, Aurore in elegant suits, and the Troglodytes in sewer-attire composed of black vinyl wet-suits.

Like Fellini before him, Jeunet searches out unusual faces and body types to populate his cinematic wonderlands. Many viewers will recognize Dominique Pinon as the pug-faced persistent, jealous, jilted lover in Amélie (2001). Others may recognize him as one of the heavies in Diva (1981). Pinon carries the film with respect to performance, being the only fully-developed character with real emotional depth. Most of the rest of the characters are one dimensional comic-book style creatures, but even then Jeunet and Caro throw in some curve balls. Clapet shows moments of genuine caring for his daughter as well as brief episodes of compunction about his slaughterhouse craft. Not that these elements stand in the way of his doing the job he has to do, you understand. Julie also shows a strength and a depth that belies her surface mousy timidity. Mademoiselle Pluss may bed the bad guy but she redeems herself grandly in the end.

Jean-Claude Dreyfus appeared as well in Tous les Matins du Monde (1991) and The City of the Lost Children (1995). Karin Viard later appeared in Time Out (2001). Marc Caro himself played one of the high-fiving Troglodytes.

The soundtrack is another highlight of this film, mixing a rich variety of sounds that include squeaks, moans, and shrieks as well as circus music, accordion music, and the duets of cello and musical saw.

Bottom-Line: Stylistically, Delicatessan is très magnifique! A masterpiece of the fantastique! True, it is all a bit zany and sophomoric but oh what stylish nonsense! This is one film that it seems almost ridiculous to rate because it is a delicacy (pardon a metaphor of doubtful taste for a film about cannibalism) that will be adored by some but will not appeal to everyone’s taste. If two-dozen average movie-goers were forced to watch this film, I have no doubt that the ratings would range from the lowest to the highest possible. This film has “cult-classic” written all over it. It should attract a devoted audience of admirers while being assiduously shunned by most mainstream viewers. This is dark – very dark – humor, terror, farce, and slapstick. Well, o.k. It’s somewhat demented and warped – but it’s also all so much good fun!

The DVD is definitely the preferred version (if you can locate a copy). It includes an outstanding commentary by Jean-Pierre Jeunet that clears up some points of plot confusion. He also tells how the inspiration for the film came from his having once lived above a butcher shop and awakened every morning to the sound of chopping. There’s also some behind-the-scenes and rehearsal footage provided plus the usual trailer. Delicatessen is rated R for violence, profanity, sex, and cannibalism.

You might want to check out these other excellent films from France:

The Battle of Algiers
La Belle et la Bête
Bob le Flambeur
Le Boucher
Boudu Saved from Drowning
A Bout de Souffle
La Cage aux Folles
Céline and Julie Go Boating
La Cérémonie
La Chèvre
Children of Paradise
Cléo from 5 to 7
Un Coeur en Hiver
Cyrano de Bergerac
The Dinner Game
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Entre Nous
Eyes Without a Face
La Femme Nikita
Forbidden Games
French Cancan
Grand Illusion
The Horseman on the Roof
Jean de Florette/Manon
The King of Hearts
Last Year at Marienbad
Life and Nothing But
Madame Rosa
A Man Escaped
Le Million
Monsieur Hire
The Mother and the Whore
La Nuit de Varennes
Pépé le Moko
Peppermint Soda
La Ronde
Round Midnight
The Rules of the Game
Le Samourai
A Sunday in the Country
The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe
Three Colors
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Wages of Fear

Recommend this product? Yes

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