For many, the name Jean-Pierre Jeunet will always be associated with Amélie (2001). However, ten years before the premiere of the film that would make him known worldwide, he surprised critics and audiences with an extraordinary debut feature: Delicatessen (1991).
Jeunet and his friend, Marc Caro, embarked on a difficult project to classify; a rare bird of the fantastic European. Marc Caro had experience in the world of comics and Jeunet had a consolidated career directing video clips. Together they managed to translate what they learned in their disciplines into a fascinating and horrifying film in equal measure.
In an indefinite period of time, we assume that after some kind of war or crisis, a small community survives in a totally inhospitable place. The action will take place in a neighborhood where its occupants can subsist thanks to the carnage that gives the film its name.
The butcher will use newspaper ads as bait offering a job in the maintenance of the building, but in reality his plans are much darker. While a part of society goes to cannibalism, a vegetarian group lives in hiding, roaming the subsoil.
The arrival of a new tenant to the building will change the course of events and we will witness a grotesque spectacle of the most delicious.
Delicatessen : two ways to survival
The title of the film itself evokes the exquisite, creating a stark contrast to what we are yet to see. Already the first minutes of footage, they warn us that some danger is in the small butcher shop and we see how the maintenance manager is killed.
Later, through a scene in which red and brown tones stand out (evoking blood), a man approaches the building to work in maintenance.
The protagonist does not know that, behind the gnawed walls of the building, lives a society that copes with famine as best it can thanks to cannibalism. The butcher rises as the highest authority, the man of power that everyone fears and venerates in equal parts, since it is he who makes the laws and who is in charge of feeding the entire community.
In contrast and from his ignorance, the newcomer manifests his vegetarianism early. Somehow, the character refuses to give in to the temptation to which hunger might have led him.
All the characters suffer the consequences of hunger and misery, but they solve them as they see fit. Nobody forces them to eat human meat, although they believe that it is the only way to survive.
Louison, who is the name of the protagonist, turns out to be a man with a sensitivity that stands out in the midst of horror. He had been a clown and is attracted to music, therefore, he will establish a great friendship with Julie, the cellist of the building who is also the daughter of the butcher.
Faced with the danger posed to Louison by staying in the building, Julie will contact the Troglodytes, a vegetarian resistance group that survives in the sewers.
Jeunet and Caro lead us through a kind of surreal fable, atrocious and entertaining in equal measure. There will be no shortage of humorous notes and the building’s diverse characters are perfectly detailed.
We know little or nothing about this fictional universe, but we sense that hunger and desolation have taken their toll on it. Among disgusting beings, we manage to find beauty in this bizarre fantasy.
An unmistakable staging
Between parody and childish aesthetics, from the first minutes, we sense a certain gloomy atmosphere. The aesthetics of the film drink heavily from the influences of its creators, that is, the comic and the video clip.
Thus, in Delicatessen we have impossible images, planes and approaches that seem taken from a comic. Likewise, music is omnipresent, ambient noises combine with the image to evoke sensations or even direct the action.
The use of color is perfectly measured and helps to create that feeling of fantasy, unreality and even a dream world. In this sense, the dream scenes are especially interesting and how, thanks to their staging, the viewer has the sensation of entering the subconscious of the character in question.
The characters also identify with their environment, with the colors and clothing they use. In this way, without too many words, the viewer will see a woman dressed in red that evokes eroticism, a man who lives among toads and snails, a woman whose suicide is always frustrated, etc.
Delicatessen is highly reminiscent of silent movies ; mimicry, gestures and expression play a fundamental role in the development of the plot. In short, the filmmakers have managed to coordinate music and image to create an aesthetic that is perfectly cared for, exquisite and strange in equal measure.
Don’t lack humor
And among all this quasi-poetic chaos that Delicatessen presents , the comic will not be lacking either. We have already mentioned some characters who, because of how colorful they are, end up becoming comic. The film is rooted in a rather subtle humor that is manifested throughout the entire film.
This subtlety in the use of humor contrasts with the horribleness of the setting. A humor used in an intelligent, witty and even dark way.
The macabre is very present in the film, after all, we are facing a group of people who survive on human flesh. The macabre becomes poetic, entertaining and, once again, delicious. Violence turns comical in seconds.
The viewer is expectant, wanting to know what will happen next. It seems that we hope – or wish – to see blood, death and destruction and, just when it seems that it is going to be served on a tray, the magic of horror is broken with a joke.
Jeunet and Caro elegantly play with our point of view, deceive us and invite us to walk a dizzying staircase in which even the most insane can take place. Finally, as in any fable, they give us a happy ending or a moral to the rhythm of the cello on a romantic roof.