Opening with an entertaining, intriguing and inventive sequence depicting a desperate man’s unsuccessful bid for freedom, Delicatessen immediately sets its tone: dark, comedic, chaotic, and brimming with eccentricity. In Mark Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film, we soon see that this poor fellow is fleeing for his life, as the madcap butcher who owns the delicatessen downstairs plans to carve him up to feed the ravenous masses that live above his store. What follows is a delightfully wicked tale of cuisine, cannibals and comic capers, served with a healthy dash of heart and humanity.
In an undisclosed post-apocalyptic French city where food is scarce, grain is used as currency, and people are starving on a daily basis, the rag-tag inhabitants of a dilapidated tenement advertise for a handyman to help with the upkeep of their building. When down on his luck clown Louison (Jeunot’s regular actor Dominique Pinon, also known as obsessive café patron Joseph in Amelie) answers the call and reports for duty, he finds that his new neighbours are slightly anxious about his presence. As is often the case, for the newcomer all is not what it seems.
Led by the scarily controlling butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, All the Mornings of the World), the assortment of hungry residents hang on Louison’s every move, his incursion into their lives offering a spark from the routine of drone-like bartering of corn and barley for scraps of anything edible. From the suicidal Aurore (Silvie Laguna, Road to Ruin) who hears voices commanding her to kill herself, to the strange Frog Man (Howard Vernon, Black Sin) who breeds his own reptilian snacks – and including the famished young family, the idiosyncratic toy-making duo, and the haughty mistress in between – the tenants hastily await the preparation of their next solid meal, as Clapet sets all manner of inventive traps to bring about the end of Louison.
Of course, the reality that their only food source is the people they lure in under the pretence of employment does not bode well with all, with Clapet’s timid, petite daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac, Things I Like, Things I Don’t Like) especially outraged by her father’s actions. Her budding romance with Louison only fuels her moral indignation, and in retaliation she hatches a cunning plan to save her loved one and punish her father. All that’s needed to put her plot into operation is the help of a society of underground mole-men, who are fighting to retain the culinary value of food.
With its evident embrace of the imaginative, Delicatessen revels in the offbeat, the unusual and the unexpected, and in doing so boasts all the makings of an engaging and humorous feature. Indeed, Delicatessen doesn’t just embrace its difference, but champions it with vigour, turning every element of the ordinary into something special. And yet, the film’s subversion exists in layers, for amidst the murderous mayhem exists a gentle story about love and survival. Honesty and entertainment thrive in the finessed, thoughtful fun, warming hearts and winning smiles in the sensitive delivery.
Of course, the feature’s charms extend from the narrative to the aesthetic, offering a sumptuous treat filled with highly artistic sequences. Impeccably shot and designed, the visuals resound with individuality, as heightened by a precise and potent enforcement of rhythm. Expressive performances only add to the charismatic cadence, as impressively enacted from Gilles Adrien’s fertile and free-wheeling script. Co-writer/directors Caro and Jeunet piece everything together, capricious in their creativity.
Accordingly, Delicatessen is an enlightening and entertaining flight into fantasy that dances with the wit, warmth and whimsy. Combining cannibalism and comedy, the film succeeds in creating an insightful look at the human condition, wrapped in the cosy confines of the anarchic and amusing.