1001 Movies: Delicatessen

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6/1001

Delicatessen (1991)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro

Starring: Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard

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“People are only as good as the world allows them to be,” the Joker hisses to Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. “When the chips are down these ‘civilised people’ will eat each other.” His venomous promise is proved true, quite literally, in Delicatessen, a post-apocalyptic farce from the director of Amélie. This is a film that gorges from the trough of humanity, only pausing to leer at its audience with a sickly grin smeared across its face.

The world has ended. How? We aren’t told. Why? It doesn’t matter. Civilisation managed to wobble on, wounded, for a few more steps before it crumbled into the gutter. There it lies, bleeding. Directors Jeunet and Caro remain unconcerned about diagnosing their Armageddon; they don’t even explicitly place a pin on where the film is actually set, although it is safe to assume this shell might once have been France. Now it stands as a provincial ‘After France’, if you will. “Here or there. This is nowhere,” growls Clapet, a high street butcher who was eaten by the devastation as Bernard Matthews, and defecated out into its ash as Sweeney Todd.

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Clapet’s delicatessen, situated beneath the knee of a larger building, is just the face of his operation. The rest of the dilapidated establishment is a fractured block of flats, perhaps better described as an asylum; a series of sardine cans, stuffed with eccentrics, which have Clapet serving as their landlord and keeper. He uses his duel businesses as a beard to cover his real machinations: luring victims with the promise of work by placing adverts in the exquisitely named rag Hard Times. Once they are in his grasp, he slaughters them, butchers their flesh and sells this produce as cheap meat to an assortment of clients – becoming very rich (in the After France currency of grain) in the process.

Enter Louison, a rubber faced ex-clown, who responds to the advertisement and places himself between Clapet’s crosshairs. The finger in Mrs Lovett’s pie, however, is that Clapet’s daughter Julie falls in love with him, head over heels, at first sight. Will she be able to save him from her father’s thirsty razors, or will Louison become the dish of the day?

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The repulsive act of cannibalism has become a narrative engine for many different franchises; but it remains at its most interesting when it is shown to be a human necessity. Think of 1993’s Alive, where survivors of a horrendous plane crash have to eat the dead passengers in order to survive. Delicatessen’s post-apocalyptic setting goes someway to ensure this, albeit in a sideways fashion. This is certainly not The Road.

The harsh bleakness of that film allows itself to illustrate its cannibals to be a savage, wretched folk – people who have regressed away from society to become beasts in clothes. Who bats an eyelid if a rat eats another rat? But, in Delicatessen, it is the concept of ‘society’ that keeps Clapet in business: the thought that a Sunday Roast would be naked without flesh on its plate. Meat may be meat and blood may be blood, but there is a marked difference between the hunter and the butcher, and the untermenschen of The Road and the ample frames featured in Delicatessen.

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Clapet, for example, is a keg of a man; with a round face and thick hair. “No one is entirely evil,” says Louison. “It’s just circumstance.” But the butcher forces us to wonder whether this philosophy is blind optimism. The development of his business is a product of the apocalypse, but what about his disposition? The behavior he exhibits is unabashed villainy.

Dominique Pinon’s Louison works as a wonderful foil to such a monster: never a man trying to be a clown; always a clown trying to be a man. Julia’s attraction to him stems from displays of everyday wizardry: something as boyishly amazing as blowing bubbles from his frothing maintenance bucket. Their relationship blossoms into something very Tim Burtonesque: creepily lovely. As they sit on a rooftop, with the view of an all but annihilated town before them, and duet with a cello and saw, you realize they are the Jack and Sally of After France.

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Their relationship remains the only pure flower in a film obsessed with awkward sexual imagery. The directors assault us with scenes of Clapet devouring his concubine, making love to her as if they was a pair of the animals that used to hang in his shop (memorably, the shrieking of their bed springs thunders through the apartments like a Viking boat’s drum, setting the pace for everyone’s mundane chores) while in an even more uncomfortable sequence a tenant becomes visibly aroused with her flirtation with suicide. Neither of these scenes are exactly pleasant to watch but, in stark contrast, they make Louison and Julie’s tea party cheek-achingly beautiful.

This is not the best film world cinema has to offer, and Amélie remains the better of Jeunet’s most notable works, but there is something quite unforgettable about Delicatessen. It has such an innocent scariness about it; like a child regaling some macabre horror story they have overheard in the playground, not realising how terrifying what they are saying actually is. After consuming the film you might find yourself wondering what exactly it is you have just swallowed down. Then you might just feel it in the cold parts of your belly for days.

Should You See It Before You Die: It’s an enjoyable film but not something I would call a classic. You’ll enjoy it if you see it but, still, I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it again. Some superb performances may be forgotten amongst the silliness of the third act (involving an all out assault by guerrilla vegetarian rebels). 

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Do you agree? Is Delicatessen delicious? Or does it leave a bad taste? Tell us what you think below.

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