Delicatessen (1991)

We start the new year with an important instalment within the career of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, as it is his first feature length film. Amelie was my introduction to his work, and this one, which he co-directed with Marc Caro (who also has a small acting role in this film. See if you can spot him). Anyway, without trying to making everything happen at the same time – This is Delicatessen.

Set in a Mid 20th Century style Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia that isn’t Fallout or Bioshock, our story in centred almost entirely at a Delicatessen, a literal microcosm that is run by Clapet The Butcher (played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who is also a Landlord to several rooms that go up a spiral staircase above the shop. Among his Tenants include his daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), Marcel Tapioca (Ticky Holgado) and his Family, Georges and Aurore Interligator (Jean-Francois Perrier and Silvie Laguna) an unhappy couple were Aurore hears voices and is suicidal. The Frogman (who lives in a flooded room with frogs and snails and eats them), two men named Robert and Roger who make animal sound toys (played by Rufus and Jacques Mathou), and of course, Mademoiselle Plusse (Karin Viard), who, unlike the others, pays the Butcher with sex (while the rest pay him with dried vegetables, which has now become a currency because the apocalypse probably happened). One day, a circus performer named Louison (played by Dominique Pinon) arrives at the Shop, answering to an advert in the Hard Times Newspaper, saying that somebody needed a low maintenance handyman. Despite being too ‘small’ for the job, Clapet decides to take him in anyway. Now…Here’s the thing. The Tenants of the rooms above the Deli could also be seen as Clapet’s dysfunctional family, as his usual code is to feed and protect them by any means…unless they leave their rooms at night…in this case, it is to possibly hire people to fix up the building before resorting to murder and cannibalism on the unfortunate employee. We see what happened to the last handyman at the beginning, which leads to the question of whether Louison will be next.

Now to discuss the building blocks before it’s too late.

The Acting in Delicatessan is among my favourite approaches to acting in general. It somehow maintains an essence of realism and truth, while at the same time it is practically a live action cartoon or comic book. If I can describe Jean-Claude Dreyfus, not only as a casting choice, but as a performer, it’s simple – He may have been France’s answer to James Gandolfini. Despite being 5’9 in real life (Only 1 source online suggests this), he looked at least 6’2 in this film, as he towers over everyone, more or less. With the exception of perhaps Jean-Francois Ferrier as Georges Interligator and Jazques Mathou as Roger, I thought everybody played a memorable part. Even the taxi driver who Louison pushed the cab for…and then paid.

The Characters are practically comic or cartoon characters in their own right – and that’s part of the general appeal. I have envisioned this story being told with anthropomorphic animals before, with Chapet as a wolf, Julie as a shrew, Plusse as a Fox, and so on, and there is something fun about that. However if there is one character who drives the story forward, it is Louison – because he is unbelievably aloof for most of the film, and unable to comprehend the idea of cannibalism, even in the climate by which he survives.

The Story is mysterious, fascinating, and poetic. We really know how this world came to be – but we know the effects it has made on it. No crops…and a Vegetarian Resistance Group (possibly) lives in the sewers. We are also presented with a sort of Fairy Tale story with a Monarchy mixed in. You have Clapet as a King providing for peasants while Julie is his Princess, Louison is the outsider who eventually seeks her hand due to her desire for a prince to sweep her off her feet, and the Postman is an acquaintance wanting to marry Julie (and trust me when I say, you never want to meet a Postman like this in real life…or maybe you do, because nobody should mess with a postman who is armed).

The Music was composed by Carlos d’Alessio, who also did Jeunet’s short film ‘Foutaises’ a few years earlier (which starred Dominique Pinon and Marie-Laure Dougnac). What he created was a highly characteristic score that ranged from quirk to a quiet somber. The piece known as “Les Bulles”, which is played when Louison entertains the Tapioca boys with a small bubble-making performance is especially lasting. However, I found the most memorable pieces of music were performed on screen. I say this, because one of the most famous scenes is what I call “The Rhythm Scene” – While Clapet’s bed is creaking from his time with Mademoiselle Plusse, Julie is playing Cello Scales. Madame Tapioca is cleaning the carpet. Louison is painting the ceiling. Marcel Taioca is blowing up a bicycle tire, and Robert and Roger and making toys. These activities are all happening to the rhythm of Chapet’s bed…which eventually gets faster and faster. The scene can be sort of explained, but it has to be witnessed to be appreciated. It was very well done. The other key musical scene was when Julie and Louison play a duet – Julie on Cello…and Louison playing a Saw with a bow. Once again, needs to be shown, not told.

The Art style and Special Effects don’t go beyond what can be physically created and made real on a film, much like Louison’s party tricks. Among the key features is how the the whole group of flats, its pipes and its niggilty piggilties actually make the Deli into a character in itself. The presentation of water damage, mould and decay is extremely well done, as well as the presentation of a literal and metaphorically crumbling civilisation that is living in the past while resorting to extreme survival means that would make them the villains in shows like The Walking Dead.

The Cinematography is done with what would eventually be a Jeunet trademark. The use of a very warm camera filter. The kind that more or less takes out blue and makes all cold colours appear as an aqua green. The flooding scene, rhythm scene and the ones showing Clapet’s dark side are among the best pieces of cinematography that I’ve ever seen.

Would I recommend Delicatessan? Yes I would. In Jeunet’s case, this was the film that really got him going, and thankfully it was only the beginning. The film is so full of life, character, humanity and quirk that I felt like I had just watched a longer TV show containing these characters, even though it was only about 95 minutes. This is a film I keep going back to, and for good reason. There isn’t a film quite like it.

Acting: ****3/4

Character: *****

Story: ****3/4

Music: ****3/4

CGI/Special Effects: ****3/4

Art: *****

Cinematography: *****

Overall ****3/4

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