Delicatessen (1991): A Surreal Exploration of the Desperate and the Strange

JDelicatessen poster

     “Delicatessen” is a great surrealist French film. The film by the directors’ own omissions said it was inspired by Terry Gilliam, and you definitely get that feel as Gilliam’s work is extremely surreal.  But, because it’s surreal it does make it a little harder to review, especially as the story functions as an ensemble story, so a few arcs get lots in the process of the exploration of different characters. This is the only thing that keeps the film from being great since the rest is very solid.

    “Delicatessen” was directed by Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet who also wrote the screenplay along with Gilles Adrian and produced by Claudie Ossard.

     The story takes place in post-apocalyptic France in a rundown apartment where the Butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) sends a call out for help and kills whomever arrives in order to feed the tenants and keep the peace. Things change though when the former clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) arrives and the Butcher Clapet, his daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and tenants become charged by Louison, causing tension to rise as each knows that they all still need to eat and worry that the Butcher will choose them instead.

The Pros: The World – The apartment that the story takes place in has a wonderful dark humor to it. Everyone there has been driven mad by the world ending and it comes out in different ways…From a man harassing a woman to make her think she hears voices, to a deaf woman walking around with cans tied to her so she can be found, to the newest tenant who is a clown and the fact that most of them are cannibals. There are also the Troglodistes who are vegetarians living underground who take on missions for people who may them in corn.

The Humor – There are some great comedic moments in this film. From the butcher having sex and the springs springing in time to Louison painting and other people working around the apartment building. There is also a moment where it looks like Louison has been be-headed but you soon learn he was just preparing for a performance he was going to put on (made all the more ironic in how most people there want to eat him).

Cinematography – This film is beautiful in how it was filmed. The scenes are desolate and dark while at the same time keeping true to the name. Red is a common color showing that the Butcher is the one who keeps the peace and does it by murder and the tenants eating his kills. Even in desolation there is hope though as seen by how the Louison and Julie relationship is portrayed, showing romance in the dark. Darius Khondji did a great job.

The Butcher – Jean-Claude Dreyfus plays a wonderful mad man who reminded me so much of Sweeney Todd. He is a man who has embraced his madness but still has some good in him deeply buried. Sadly we only see that good in relation to his daughter but all that changes when he gives into social pressure to kill Louison, which in the end leads to him killing himself accidentally in his attempt to kill Louison. This was a tough role to do as he has to be terrifying and sympathetic, just like Sweeney Todd.

Louison – This actor was also in “Amelie” and Dominique Pinon was perfect in this role. He isn’t attractive but he is adorable and his face is the perfect face for a clown, as he has a wide mouth and his head is a little big. This in turn fits with the surrealist feel of the apartment and time and time again he shows the world around him kindness even when he rarely receives any. He is kind, though doesn’t think things through. We see his kindness in creating soap bubbles for the kids in the apartment and how he’ll listen to anyone but how he isn’t all that aware that everyone is a cannibal for the most part and when the mistress asks him to dance he does it without thinking about Julie which leads to Julie walking in on them. Regardless, he is a complex character and a fun character to watch.

Julie – Julie is shy but can be hard and driven when she needs to be. She is the only one who stands up to her father and is the one who tries to save Louison. She is haunted by what her father does and wants to live in a different world. Her greatest escape is through music and she is talented in it as well as being a much more active agent than Louison who is passive. Marie-Laure Dougnac is fantastic!

The Romance – Jean Pierre-Jeunet is one of my favorite directors and one of the few who can pull of romances well. He did it in “Amelie” and he does it here with Julie and Louison. They are both innocent in their own way and figuring things out as romance is so new to both of them. They act (Julie on her Cello, Louison as the clown) as a way to connect to themselves and others and from this their romance blossoms as they have respect for one another too. This is powerful and ends with Julie seeking to Troglodistes to save Louison from her father.

The Troglodistes – The Trogs are great. They are also insane, but good and run like a military operation who great fear the landdwellers as they live in the sewers. They have some great scenes with Julie and we see how desperate they are for supplies when she convinces them by telling them her father has corn in his room. This is enough to convince them to save Louison. They are the only good humans in this world besides Julie and Louison too.

The Flood and Final Scene – When the Butcher and tenants are trying to kill Louison he ends up flooding the bathroom and when the door is open all the water washes away the people trying to get to himself and Julie. It’s a great scene that symbolizes the washing away of the old mentality…and in the end there is a new beginning after the Butcher is gone as Julie and Louison play music on top of the apartment building.

Okay: The Other Tenants – Most of the other tenants don’t feel fleshed out. There is the working class guy whose grandmother gets eaten, the man who makes devices that create animal sounds (he is the one harassing the mad woman) and his son and also the mistress of the Butcher. None of them really change though, which is why I can’t put them as a pro. They are unique characters, but in an ensemble show characters must change to keep it interesting. Even surrealist stories still need an arc for their characters of some kind.

The Cons: Plot Holes – At one point the Butcher is thinking about redemption and how circumstances made him what he is based of what he heard Louison telling Julie. This is never picked up again and the next time he’s trying to kill Louison. The other major plot hole is Julie sees Louison dancing with the Mistress, but they never address it. Both these issues are never touched on again which makes the ending and final fight come on suddenly. This was a major con as they could have gone somewhere, the movie wasn’t long so this wasn’t left out due to lack of time.

     This was a really good film that I definitely recommend. It does have issues, like the plot holes but it is still a very fun ride and the cinematography and strangeness of the tenants make for some wonderful experiences. Jean-Pierre Juenet has done it again and after seeing this I want to see more of his films and more of the surrealist films from France and elsewhere in the world. This film was beautiful, even with the plot hole issues and it is worth checking out.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great in the end.

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