It's really quite shameful that the majority of Americans who enjoy Amelie and Jeunet's ill-fated follow up, the overlong but beautiful and quirky A Very Long Engagement, know nothing of Delicatessen. While Alien fans scoffed at Jeunet's wicked retooling of the franchise with Alien:Alien: Resurrection, it was but a pale shadow of his early, dark work with his co-collaborator and muse, Marc Caro.
The two got their start in animation. Their first film, a mesmerizing short, Le Bunker de la dernier rafale, was equal parts David Lynch and brothers Quay and won numerous awards. It established the pair as art house provocateurs with a darkly silly, Tom and Jerry bent. Their follow up and debut feature film, Delicatessen, was nominated for the BAFTA, and won Cesars in France and awards at Sitges and Tokyo International.
In a post-apocalyptic France, the last vestiges of a tattered humanity reside in a beaten old hotel beset by rain, drenched in fog and surrounded by pools of thick, brown mud. The landlord, the corpulent and intense Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), is also a butcher who supplies his tenants with the one commodity that they will pay anything for: meat. A young drifter, Louison, played by the rubber-faced Dominique Pinon, takes up residence at the hotel as a handyman. What Louison doesn't know is that Clapet keeps the hotel resident's from tearing each other apart by feeding them, well, the supple flesh of handymen. When Clapet's daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), falls for Louison, the whole cannibalistic shebang goes haywire. Throw in a revolutionary vegetarian frog-man team roaming the sewers, a snail farm, and a suicidal woman whose psychotic voices may not be all in her head... well, the grotesque joys are endless.
Outdoing Gilliam for pure oddness at every turn, Jeunet and Caro create a film world unlike anything that had been seen before. But the most brilliant bit is that the oddness never really overwhelms the picture, this isn't just bizarre for the sake of being crazy. Yahoo Serious doesn't show up anywhere and neither does Jerry Lewis. Jeunet and Caro are careful craftsmen; everything is perfectly poised and colored, the cartoon artfully stirred into moments of the sublime. Rather than a bizarre comedy - or, even worse, a black comedy - Delicatessen is a brilliant example of commercial surrealism.
All the highbrow film criticism aside, the film's also very, very funny. Pinon takes his clownish caricatures to the extreme, bending and stretching his odd face in new and fantastic ways. There are numerous hilarious sequences in the film that demand rewinding: The residents of the rotting hotel fall in sync with the rhythmic sex of two lovers (the springs squeak, an old lady beats her rug, the butcher chops a steak...), the final battle atop a toilet seat, the boomerang knife, the saw symphony on the rooftop. All these monstrously funny scenes add up to moments of such anarchic fervor, the whole thing threatens to explode into incomprehensibility. But it doesn't. Jeunet and Caro were that good. (I say "were," because after their next film, the equally entrancing City of Lost Children, the two formally went their separate ways. While Jeunet moved on to the big time, Caro focused on unusual short fare.)
When the dust settles, the laughing jags fade and the blood coagulates, Delicatessen is about much more than cinematic thrills. Sure, it's funny, it's gross, it's diabolically, unabashedly idiosyncratic, but it's also an epic ode to that most fundamental expression of human endeavor - creativity.
The DVD incldues commentary from Jeunet and two making-of featurettes.
Run time: 99 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd April 1992
Box Office Worldwide: $13.8M
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Production compaines: Victoires Productions, Constellation, Union Générale Cinématographique (UGC), Hachette Première, Sofinergie Films, Sofinergie 2, Investimage 2, Fondation GAN pour le Cinéma
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 46 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Producer: Claudie Ossard
Starring: Dominique Pinon as Louison, Marie-Laure Dougnac as Julie Clapet, Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Clapet (the butcher), Karin Viard as Mademoiselle Plusse, Ticky Holgado as Marcel Tapioca, Pascal Benezech as Tried to Escape, Edith Ker as Grandmother, Rufus as Robert Kube, Jacques Mathou as Roger Kube, Chick Ortega as Postman, Jean-François Perrier as Georges Interligator, Silvie Laguna as Aurore Interligator, Howard Vernon as Frog Man, Dominique Zardi as Taxi Driver