Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Pascal Benezech, Karin Viard, Ticky Holgado, Anne-Marie Pisani, Boban Janevski, Mikael Todde, Edith Ker, Rufus, Jacques Mathou, Howard Vernon, Chick Ortega, Silvie Laguna, Jean-Fran�ois Perrier, Dominique Zardi, Patrick Paroux, Maurice Lamy, Marc Caro, Eric Averlant
Written by: Gilles Adrien, Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Directed by: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 04/17/1991

Delicatessen (1992)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Food for Thought

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his co-directing partner Marc Caro made their feature debut with this black-hearted black comedy, directed as if it were a living cartoon. It takes place in a hopeless future, where food is scarce, but where an odd assortment of people live as neighbors in a grimy, urban tenement building. The building is located over a butcher shop, and the butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) has a long-standing system. He hires maintenance men for the building. Occasionally these workers disappear, and the butcher shop suddenly has a new shipment of meat for the tenants to devour.

The latest such maintenance man is the cheerful Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former circus clown. He's sometimes sad because his ex-partner, a monkey, was killed and eaten. Things begin to take their regular course, but the butcher's daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), takes a liking to the new man and decides to warn him. We also meet several other tenants, including a pair of gentlemen who make those little toy cardboard tubes that make sheep noises when you tilt them, a woman who makes several (comical) suicide attempts, and a man who keeps frogs and snails. As things progress more toward the dark moment, more commotion arises, and a team of black-suited commandos, traveling by sewer, begins quietly surrounding the building.

Jeunet and Caro love the way the building and their scenes connect; they construct several wonderful Rube Goldberg configurations, especially using the air ducts that connect the rooms. One wonderful sequence begins with a couple making love in a springy bed, and each tenant adds their own rhythmic sound effects; the beat grows faster and more frenetic, with each player picking up the tempo, until everything explodes in a building-wide climax. (This sequence was used, intact, for the film's U.S. trailer.)

The overall texture of the film is amazingly slick and deliberate and controlled, like a demented Looney Tunes short; it's totally fluid and constantly moving, with nothing to hide. The entire artificial world is here, in three dimensions. Unfortunately, there's a definitely emotional lack in the film, and after a while it's hard to care much. Pinon is a terrific character actor, and his bittersweet clown routine carries a lot of weight, but when it comes time for him to be heroic during a showdown, he more or less disappears into the commotion. The filmmakers had this same trouble on their warmer, and bigger second film The City of Lost Children (1995), but Jeunet made up for it on his first solo outing, Amélie (2001).

Nevertheless, Delicatessen has an undeniable dark appeal that made it into a brief midnight cult film and makes it worth watching again today. Lionsgate landed the U.S. Blu-Ray rights and released a gorgeous new disc, complete with a Jeunet commentary track (in French), lots of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and trailers.

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