Delicatessen is hard to pin down under a specific genre label; it’s a surreal black comedy, a human drama, a post-apocalyptic horror movie, a twisted thriller, a futuristic fantasy; and all in all; one of the strangest and most original films I’ve ever seen.
In this fantasy world, the world has been ravaged and food is now in short supply. This has therefore made food invaluable and it is being used as currency. Things are traded for with grain, corn and lentils, but not everyone can afford the luxury of food, and some have had to resort to cannibalism to continue to enjoy eating. Our scene opens at a delicatessen in an unspecified location in France, and we are treated to an absolutely delicious sequence (no pun intended) in which a man is desperately trying to hide himself in the trash can. We later find that the reason for this is that this particular delicatessen hires handymen and keeps them long enough to fatten them up, and then they are eaten by the delicatessen’s butcher and the inhabitants of the apartment building in which they live. The story really gets going when an ex-clown turns up at the shop, wanting the handyman’s job, which has…become available. The plot thickens when the new handyman meets, and later falls in love with, the butcher’s daughter; Julie. Julie knows what goes on at the delicatessen and can’t allow her new found love to meet the same fate as the others, and therefore does the only thing she can do; hire a band of vegetarian freedom fighters to save her love from becoming dinner for the butcher and his customers.
Delicatessen is directed by the team of Marc Caro (whom, I’m afraid, I am unfamiliar with) and the more well known Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of a few lesser known modern classics, but best known for the enthusiastic ‘Amelie’. The film is brought to life by a brilliant ensemble cast. Dominique Pinon (who also featured in Jeunet’s Amelie, Alien 4 and City of Lost Children) takes the lead role of the clown turned handyman. His performance is both understated and magical; as he simultaneously manages to entice the viewer into his performance, and yet keeps his character in the realms of reality (a place in which this film doesn’t take place). Jean-Claude Dreyfus is the real star of the show, however, as the extroverted and over the top butcher. His performance certainly isn’t subdued, to say the least; and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. In a stark contrast to Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac; the young lady that plays his daughter and love interest for Pinon is very down to earth, and is the most ‘normal’ character in the film…although there’s still room for her to be a nearly blind klutz. The rest of the ensemble comes together excellently, and not a single actor in the film performs below par or looks out of place; and there’s not many films that you can say that for.
This film isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. In fact, the only film I can think of that is similar to this is Terry Gilliam’s futuristic fantasy; Brazil. The film draws it’s originality from it’s plot mainly, which is extremely surreal and inventive in itself, but it’s not just that which makes Delicatessen one of a kind; it’s all the smaller plot points. How many films do you know that feature a bullshit detector? (that is set off when the butcher tells it that “life is wonderful”, no less). The way that the film looks is also wonderfully different; Delicatessen has a yellow hue, which lends it a style that is very dull and dreary; and that does the film no end of favours when you consider it’s core subject material. The yellow hue also makes the film almost feel like a moving comic book, which is one of the things that gives the film it’s surreal and absurd edge. I’m a big fan of atmospheric films, which is one of the main reasons why I like horror so much; and this film also has an atmosphere like no other. It’s the way that the yellow-ish buildings look next to the dark skyline, and the way that the film uses darkness and smoke to make it more horrifying (see roof sequence towards the end) that gives this film the finishing touch to it’s already distinct style.
The love story in the film is sweet and tender, and this very much offsets the dark overtones of the rest of the film. This is nice, as during the scenes between the clown (Pinon) and Julie (Dougnac), the film allows itself to indulge in humour that isn’t dark like the rest of the film, and you get the impression that it’s enjoying itself a little more. This is just another thing in a long line of great things that make Delicatessen a great movie. Another of these things is the more minor characters. I have never seen a more motley crew than the one in this film. As previously mentioned, Julie, although not entirely ‘normal’, is the most normal character in the film; the rest of it is populated by lunatics. There’s a man with a house full of frogs, a woman that continually tries to commit suicide, a man that puts cans on his deaf mother in law so they know where she is etc. The support cast’s wackiness don’t add anything much to the story itself (which only really requires them to be there), but the fact that they are different and imaginative is another of the film’s absurd edges, and another thing that makes this film different from everything else.
Delicatessen concentrates more on being absurd and surreal than it does in posing deep and philosophical questions. Personally, I have no problem with that, but those who do want a movie to be deep and meaningful might find the film disappointing because of that. That is not to say that the film completely lacks depth or meaning; although a moral to the story doesn’t seem to present itself, the film takes it’s depth from the ‘what if’ scenario that it presents; “if the world’s food supply became too short to feed the population, would you resort to cannibalism or join the vegetarian freedom fighters?”. It’s a very general message; but it’s definitely there.
Overall, Delicatessen is a sublime piece of cinema. You wont find imagination and inventiveness to the extent that it is shown here in most films, and that alone is reason enough to warrant this classic status. Delicatessen is everything I say it is and more; and overall the film is one of the true highlights of the 1990’s. A gem.