Australian filmgoers must have a rather warped impression of French cinema. Glancing around the local arthouse theatres, one would imagine that filmmaking in France is devoted solely to lush, nostalgic, pastoral dramas like My Mother's Castle (1990) or slick, stylish thrillers like Nikita (1990).
We receive an occasional masterwork from a venerable old director like Éric Rohmer; but, for the most part, we miss out on the truly exciting, challenging films from France.
In this context, Delicatessen is an oddity to be welcomed. An unexpected box office hit in its home country, it is a highly unusual and original project. Its two directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, come (like many contemporary French directors) from the world of advertising and rock video. But the most distinctive influence on their style seems to be underground comics – or graphic novels, as they are rather snobbishly called today.
In its premise, Delicatessen is a comic take on Mad Max (1979) and the whole genre of post-apocalypse movies. The charred, nuclear landscape, however, remains off-screen throughout. Jeunet and Caro take us on a madcap journey through one particular apartment building stuffed with survivors. Here is a virtual self-contained society dependent on cannibalism – where the resident butcher is both landlord and despotic ruler.
Few of the actors in the film will be familiar to the general viewer. They form a colourful ensemble covering a decent range of human perversions and grotesqueries. A man sits in his flat happily covered with snails and frogs; a woman contrives ever more elaborate, and eternally unsuccessful ways of killing herself. People grimly go on with their routine, everyday tasks, wondering if they are the next to be swiped on the stairs and served up as the next day's rations.
The visual and aural style of the film is distorted and gross. Burlesque events multiply in the separate rooms of the building, eventually overlapping in surprising ways. An elaborate series of creaky pipes carry messages, ruses, and frantic sounds of love making from character to character.
Delicatessen borrows from the traditions of both surrealism and black comedy. Yet the overall tone of the film is extremely unique. Jeunet and Caro have invented a new kind of gag comedy for the screen. Their imaginings may be dark and cynical, but their jokes are vigorously physical and elemental.
There is an undeniable elation in these post-apocalyptic high jinks – and also a strangely tender kind of poetry.
MORE Jeunet & Caro: The City of Lost Children
MORE Jeunet: Amélie
© Adrian Martin April 1992