August 26, 2011

Delicatessen (1991)

In the late 70s, french director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and designer Marc Caro met at a film festival and found they had a lot in common regarding their view on visual arts. Wit Jeunet being an animator, and Caro a comic book artist, their friendship soon became an artistic team that would spend the following decade making short films and TV commercials where the duo was able to develop their artistic style and master the cinema language, perfecting their storytelling abilities and visual design skills. All done in order to prepare themselves to begin a full-time career in film-making. Their joint efforts finally payed back in 1991, when Jeunet and Caro were finally able to take their craft to the level of a full feature length film, in the project that would become their breakthrough in the film industry and the proper beginning of their careers as filmmakers: the post-apocalyptic black comedy "Delicatessen". Zany, whimsical, a times morbid, at times sweet, "Delicatessen" would introduce the talents of Jeunet and Caro to the world.

The world of "Delicatessen" is a dark bleak post-apocalyptic France where apparently there is no law and food is incredibly sparse (to the point that grain is now being used as currency). In this desolated urban nightmare, the residents of an old, dilapidated apartment building located in the middle of nowhere have a solution to the hunger that roams the world thanks to the schemes of their landlord, the butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). The butcher's solution is to kill the building's handyman and use him as meat to feed his bizarre group of tenants; and after that Clapet offers again the position of handyman to outsiders, in order to find more fresh meat. One day, former clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) arrives to the building and gets the handyman position, and soon it is set that he'll be the next victim; however, the butcher's daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) has fallen in love with Louison, and she will do whatever is necessary to help the naive clown to survive and stop the madness of her father's delicatessen.

Written by Gilles Adrien (who also wrote several of the previous Jeunet & Caro shorts), along directors Jeunet & Caro themselves, "Delicatessen" is a wonderfully imaginative tale of sweet romance and hilarious black comedy that gives an unexpected light-hearted twist to a topic one may normally found a tad morbid for a comedy: cannibalism. And surprisingly, it all works bizarrely fine, not only because of the whimsical, surrealist and almost absurd tone that the story has, but also because of the detailed assortment of strange yet very human characters that populate the world of "Delicatessen". This collection of human oddities truly become the movie's soul, adding a lot of charm and heart to the film with their highly detailed antics and traits, as if each one has a small but necessary piece in a complex machine. The story, stripped down to its most basic, it is actually a very simple one; however, the darkly humorous tone and the charm of its characters transform it into a weird yet enjoyable experience.

Nevertheless, it is in the visual aspect where the film truly shines and becomes simply sublime, with Jeunet and Caro's highly imaginative style appearing all over the place. Dividing responsibilities, director Marc Caro got full control of the production design and the visual elements of the movie, and so in "Delicatessen" Caro's highly inventive artistic vision results in a vibrant imagery that seems to be the dark offspring of Cinéma du look and a heavily retro-futurist vibe, creating a movie that could be described as a moving canvas. Highly atmospheric, the french duo puts to great use the work of cinematographer Darius Khondji, mixing techniques and showing a huge range of their artistic influences that go from German Expressionism to 40s modernism, resulting in one of the most beautiful looking movies ever done. Jeunet's visual narrative is slick and coherent in tone, giving substance to Caro's style, saving the film from being a hollow visual fest. It could be said that Jeunet's work is keeping the many elements of the film working nicely in the right place. And he succeeds.

As written above, it's in the characters and their antics where the "Delicatessen"'s soul is, and the ensemble of actors playing them really made a terrific job in the film. Leading the cast is Dominique Pinon (who would become one of Jeunet's regular collaborators), delivering a subtle and charming performance as the ex-clown Louison. Pinon gives the character a very human touch, essential for the kind of character he is playing, and this human touch coupled with his facial expressiveness at times makes him like the spiritual heir of the kind of silent film comedy that Chaplin used to do. Truly believable in the role, Pinon handles the film's sardonic situations with a great comedic timing and a lot of physical expression. The same can be said of Marie-Laure Dougnac, who plays Louison's love interest Julie, and captures the sweetness and naiveté of her character in a very natural way. Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Clapet the Butcher is simply delightful as the story's "villian", and achieves equal levels of nastiness and hilarity with his work.

Basically every member of the cast delivers an unforgettable performance no matter how long or short is their screen time (Silvie Laguna for example, is really wonderful), and this is truly a testament not only of the cast's skill, but also of the writers' wit and love for the project. "Delicatessen" is a solid debut by this two skillful french artists, and it already shows why the two quickly became an important team in the French fantasy cinema. Their very own brand of surrealist fantasy flows freely through the film making a unique visual fest (although to be fair, it definitely goes a over-the-top at times, particularly at the end), and while it doesn't reach the artistic level of their superior follow-up (the 1995 dark tale of science fiction "La Cité Des Enfants Perdus"), it's still a nicely done movie that delivers good entertainment and showcases its director's narrative talents. While its subject matter may be difficult to stomach, "Delicatessen"'s whimsical tone and lavish visual style make this filmic dish an exquisite oddity.

Unlike their later films, maybe "Delicatessen" won't be everyone's cup of tea, as its surreal fantasy may seem at times too close to absurd to be enjoyable. However, those with a taste for the bizarre will find a great movie in this French comedy. While "Delicatessen" still shows the excess of the young and raw talent of Jeunet & Caro, it's not hard to see why they became known worldwide after this initial success, as this movie shows the enormous potential of their skills as filmmakers. This brilliant mixture of genres is definitely a very recommended movie, and like "La Cité Des Enfants Perdus" ("The City of the Lost Children" in English), "Delicatessen" is an essential gem of French cinema of the 90s.


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