(Note to self: this is the synopsis part of the article. Just get on with it.)
Okay. Ex-circus performer Louison (Dominique Pinon) turns up at a run-down apartment block looking for work. The apartment block consists of an enclave of oddballs who seem to be the survivors of some kind of catastrophe. Apart from Louison, the only contact with the outside world is the intermittent appearance of a postman (Chick Ortega) who has designs on Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), daughter of the butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus).
In a world where meat is scarce and grain has become a unit of currency, Clapet rules the apartment block like a mob boss. He takes in the occasional handymen in order to keep his customers in meat; thus he holds sway over them, even coercing one snivelling unfortunate who is unable to pay his bill into turning over his mother-in-law.
Julie, repulsed as much by her father’s practises as by the postman’s overtures, develops a gentle romance with the good-natured but naïve Louison. Realising he’s next for the chopping board, she begs her father to spare him. When he refuses, Julie enlists the help of underground subversive group the Troglodytes. Mayhem ensues …
Although ‘Delicatessen’ is a drastically different work from ‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’ (to begin with, it’s funny and it has a protagonist you can root for), there’s no doubt it’s the work of the same minds. Ambiguities are rife, particularly with regard to when it’s set. The two schoolboys who seem to be the only non-adult contingent of the apartment block wear short trousers and look like they’ve stepped out of a post-war comic book. Julie’s wardrobe is 50s girl-next-door. Clapet’s girlfriend Madamoiselle Plusse (Karin Viand) sports a sweater-girl look from the same area. TV footage of Louison and his former partner – a monkey called Livingston – performing at the circus is broadcast in black and white. The Troglodytes seem to be an affectionate homage to the French Resistance, turning the frame of reference back to the 40s. The cannibalism element evokes 70s exploitationers as well as pre-supposing the Hilary Briss character in ‘The League of Gentlemen’, while Jeunet and Caro’s ability to wring humour out of, for example, a running gag about failed suicide attempts, suggests an aesthetic that reflects a more contemporary sense of malaise.
Does all that make ‘Delicatessen’ sound heavy-going? It isn’t. It’s briskly paced, eminently watchable and, for the most of its 95-minute running time, funny as fuck. The thing is, it shouldn’t be. This is a film where SPOILER ALERT the neurotic Aurore (Silvie Laguna) stages her third suicide attempt by positioning herself in front of a shotgun, angled upwards to take into account that fact that she’s stand on a chair, the better to crane her neck into a noose, the gas stove on and the fuse burning down on an incendiary device. A wire threads from the shotgun to the door handle so that when she calls her husband in, the act of opening the door will apply due pressure to the trigger. Just to make sure, she has a bottle of pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other. She calls her husband, gulps the pills down and readies herself to join the voices who have been calling to her from (she thinks) beyond. SPOILER ALERT RE-EMPHASISED. Her husband enters. The wire jerking the trigger back also dislodges the shotgun; the discharge severs the rope; as she falls backwards, the glass tumbles from her hand and extinguishes the incendiary device; the force of her impact causes her to spew out the pills. All of which is much funnier than it has any right to be. (Hell, I tried to commit suicide once and still get the shakes now and then thinking about what might have happened – and I find it funny.) Then Jeunet and Caro full-stop the sequence with a coda that’s as nastily ironic as anything H.G. Clouzot ever came up with and you find yourself caught between laughter and shocked silence. SPOILERS END.
Likewise, a scene where … oh fuck it, SPOILERS AGAIN … one of the Troglodytes, who spend half the time being cool and iconic and the other half bumbling around incompetently (kind of like a Jack Sparrow prototype a decade before ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’), is shot and the news of his demise is communicated through the ranks in a “pass it on” style redolent of the schoolyard is freighted with the same admixture of horror and humour. SPOILERS END.
“Horror and humour”: the description applies to the residents of the apartment block. There’s the practical joker whose misuse of the acoustic possibilities of the pipework leads Aurore to believe that voices from the other side are encouraging her to join them. There’s the old man (Howard Vernon) who cultivates snails in his semi-flooded apartment; a visual joke at the expense of the culinary leanings of Jeunet and Caro’s fellow countrymen has half of his living room provide a watery home to the molluscs, and the other half as a dumping ground for their post-prandial empty shells. There’s Louison’s predecessor who tries to escape in a rubbish bin disguised as a bundle of wastepaper; his thwarted attempt is the subject of a pre-credits sequence that establishes ‘Delicatessen’ as satirical, subversive, visually imaginative and sometimes bitingly cynical.
But the film is equally wistful, playful and romantic. The scenes between Louison and Julie as their tentative courtship unfolds faltering against a backdrop of bashfulness, hesitance and misunderstanding, stimulates the emotions as much as it does the funny bone. Is it simplifying things to say the Jeunet brought the light and Caro the darkness, Jeunet the sweetness and Caro the sting? Maybe, maybe not. Even ‘Amelie’ – surely the sweetest and most affirmative two hours of cinema in the last couple of decades – has its share of subversive moments.
Ultimately, it matters not who brought what to the project. ‘Delicatessen’ remains one of the most fully-formed statements of a debut filmmaker’s aesthetic. The general consensus of critical opinion was to compare Jeunet and Caro to Terry Gilliam, and if you want to go down that route you can also find trace elements of David Lynch, film noir and more besides. It doesn’t matter whether Jeunet brought the light and Caro the darkness or vice versa or both brought a little bit of each; what’s for damn sure is that both men brought to the project an absolute, unbound, pure, exhilarating love of cinema. Beyond the readily identifiable influences and homages, beyond the stylisations and the terrific performances, infused in the very celluloid is a passion for and understanding of a hundred years of cinema as an art form. It’s the movie-lover’s movie; cinema for the cineaste. It’s entirely appropriate that its authors are French.