Delicatessen (1991)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro | 1hr 39min

It isn’t enough for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro to build a fully expressionistic vision of dystopian France, cluttered with decrepit décor and thick with a yellow smog that hangs ominously through its streets. They then go on to push the limits of Delicatessen’s outlandish set pieces to ridiculous heights, warping its sepia-tinted grotesqueries even further into a dark breed of absurdist humour that underscores the nonsensical hellscape, throwing all reason out the window. It is not surprising that the marketing at the time of the film’s release played more into Terry Gilliam’s association with the film than the independent creativity of its then-unknown directors, given its similarities to Brazil. Were it not for Jeunet’s illustrious later career proving his own artistic capability, it would have been tempting to assume that Gilliam played a part in more than just the film’s distribution. Despite his lack of direct involvement though, it is still his cinematic footsteps which Jeunet and Caro are effectively following in, constructing a meticulously fantastical world that, while unsettling in its decaying Gothic visage, savours the traces of wonder and innocence that seem to exist on the verge of total extinction.

An eerie, yellow dystopia set up with these wide shots gradually narrowing in on this lonely apartment building, founded atop a delicatessen.

Delicatessen’s premise is set up swiftly and suspensefully in the prologue, the camera tracking eerily past crumbling structures towards an apartment building founded upon a tiny butcher’s shop. It continues moving through pipes and passageways, all while the ever-present sound of sharpening knives rings ominously in the background. The source of the noise is Clapet, the butcher in question who invites and then kills new tenants so that he may sell fresh meat to the rest of the building’s inhabitants. His most recent victim has figured out the plot, and yet despite the young man’s best efforts to disguise himself among the trash and hide in a garbage bin, he is not quick enough to outsmart his hunter. Right after Clapet lifts the lid to his hiding spot and before he brings his meat cleaver down, he opens his mouth in a wide, gaping laugh – a caricature of a facial expression which we later learn he spends his spare time practicing, consciously aiming to draw out visceral reactions of terror from his victims.

This is expressionistic, silent film acting – it is almost as if these actors have been instructed to twist their faces into the most inhuman expressions possible.

Jean-Claude Dreyfus is not the only actor with a striking appearance to match Jeunet and Caro’s heightened style though, with virtually everyone in this cast possessing cartoonish faces that brilliantly twist into amplified expressions of horror, shock, adoration, and glee. Dominique Pinon’s simple-minded, unemployed circus clown, Louison, who becomes the butcher’s main victim in Delicatessen is no exception with his peculiar protruding jaw, and neither is Marie-Laure Dougnac’s romantic cellist, Julie, with her innocent, wide-eyed gaze. Together, both become a force of sweet, sincere love fighting Delicatessen’s misshapen world. Just as high, low, and canted angles exaggerate perspectives of Jeunet and Caro’s cluttered architecture, so too are they used to frame close-ups of their actors’ contorted expressions, further driving up the psychological insanity of this darkly comedic setting.

Jeunet and Caro are no doubt magnificent production designers, but their framing of close-ups are worth studying too. A significant influence from Gilliam in the angles, lighting, makeup, and costumes here.

With imagery as provocative as this, there is no need for Jeunet and Caro to lay into the blood and gore one might otherwise expect from a story about a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic butcher. Neither is social commentary their primary concern here either, though there is plenty to pick apart in regards to the use of food as currency and the crafty, brutal methods lower classes must resort to if they are to survive. At the forefront of the directors’ minds is building Delicatessen’s idiosyncratic, tactile world with brazenly maximalist stylings, absorbing us into the currents and cadences of these characters’ eccentric routines. Through a masterful combination of snappy editing and enthralling camera movements, Jeunet and Caro breathe life into this dilapidated complex, transforming its rooms, hallways, and sewers into visual reflections of their oddball inhabitants.

Each apartment reflecting the idiosyncrasies of its inhabitant, though all bound together within this dimly lit green and yellow world.

Rhythmic montages especially become a source of tender amusement in Delicatessen, becoming almost dance-like after Louison fixes a neighbour’s creaky bed and then sits on it with her, bouncing in time to a Hawaiian song playing on the television. The gentle pacing of this sequence exists in contrast to another more agitated one from earlier, which layers the sounds and images of characters all through the building playing a cello, beating a rug, clacking knitting needles, working a mechanical machine, pumping a bike tyre, and painting a ceiling. With each line of melody and percussion moving in unison to the editing’s gradually accelerating tempo, Jeunet and Caro build them all to a climax that sees them dramatically break down in frantically comical fashion. The scene is delectably exciting in its peculiar vigour, but even more significantly, it informs our understanding of every major and minor character present in the story, uniting them together in a broken society that condemns them to meagre, repetitive lives.

A feat of editing from Jeunet and Caro, crafting rhythmic montages that are purely absurd and simultaneously dedicated to world building.

The singularly greatest achievement on display here though is the compositional madness that is Delicatessen’s colourfully expressionistic production design, foreshadowing the whimsical designs that soon become Jeunet’s instantly recognisable trademark. Like Amelie, there is a consistent dedication to a specific colour palette, with murky shades of yellow sinking itself into almost every corner of the mise-en-scène while letting through traces of green, red, and orange. Rather than smoothing it over with a glossy sheen though, its texture is saturated with dirt and grit, seeping with the sort of moral corruption that thrives in this bleak city.

The sewers stand out as a particular well designed set piece with pipes crossing the frame in cluttered Sternbergian compositions, and the golden lighting bouncing off their wet surfaces.
Surrealism and expression are inseparable for Jeunet and Caro.

Every piece of set dressing here serves to crowd out the physical presence of the characters, as the bizarrely twisted angles formed by stair bannisters and sewage pipes obscure brilliantly cluttered compositions. Surreal anarchy is pervasive in these designs, right down to the disjointed function of two taps that can only be turned on by each other’s handles, and wearing away at the structure of the building until it is utterly destroyed in the final act, collapsing its floors in a display of total visual chaos.

The apartment building is its own character, crumbling away by the end of the film like its inhabitants.

In this way, it is only in demolishing the physical and social structures preserving humanity’s barbarity that Louison and Julie find any sort of peace in this nightmare. It is a sad state of affairs indeed that impoverished men and women are driven to savagely kill their neighbours just to get by, and although there are no pretensions that the ills affecting this world’s economy have been solved, Jeunet and Caro do relish the small wins for humanity’s kindness. Having survived an army of bloodthirsty neighbours, the two young lovers sit beneath red umbrellas atop the roof of their now-defunct apartment building, playing their unlikely pairing of instruments in a strangely romantic duet. As the cello and the musical saw ring out across the lonely wasteland, the yellow smog slowly begins to clear to reveal the dawn of a new day, finally shedding a hopeful light upon this small but meaningful victory for pure, unselfish love.

Perhaps the brightest shot of the film, as the yellow smog clears away to reveal this sweet, innocent love carving out its own place in the world.

Delicatessen is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

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