By Ciara LaVelle
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Set in a hazy, non-specific, post-apocalyptic future, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's black-hearted satirical comedy from France, Delicatessen, makes no attempt to conceal its sources of inspiration, pictorial and thematic: A predominant one is Terry Gilliam's Brazil (which, of course, drew from wide literary sources such as Orwell's 1984 and Kafka's The Castle); Rube Goldberg, the mechanically innovative cartoonist of the Twenties; rapid-fire images from tube advertising and icon-heavy MTV; trashy, end-of-the-world sci-fi pictures mostly from the Sixties and early Seventies; and comic-book material of pseudo-pornographic and iconoclastic derivation. In this issue of New Times there's a feature story that attempts to define the aesthetic netherworld of kitsch, that no man's land between good and bad art. If I were disposed to spend time looking for the meaning of this tumorous appendage of popular culture -- frankly, I'm not -- I would nonetheless be pressed to find a better example of it than Delicatessen's tastefully rendered bad taste.
Visually it's a considerable achievement (especially when you take into account the cost -- a scarce two million dollars -- of production). But Delicatessen's self-imposed limits are a source of reward: Setbound and stagey to much greater effect than, say, Derek Jarman's Edward II, this film aims for visual claustrophobia, and exceeds and revels in it. This must be the quirkiest -- and in some ways, the kinkiest -- doomsday saga ever filmed. The look of the retro-Forties slum where the bulk of the action takes place (magnificently captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji) is all of a piece: The color spectrum is contained, the slated grays and drab browns looming perilously close to monochrome. Clothes and set designs evince both panache and penury in their timeworn elegance. Delicatessen is a junkyard dog, but one, confoundingly, also possessed of pedigree.
The eponymous delicatessen occupies the ground floor in a hollow shell of a building -- a deliberately crude metaphor for civilization and its discontents -- where distraught occupants live, emotionally and politically, on edge. In this starkly violent hereafter, comforts are few and food is a prized commodity. It follows that the butcher (Jean Claude Dreyfus) is the epicenter of this enclosed society, a carnivorous pasha who rules over his clients (as landlord and food purveyor) with megalomaniacal vehemence. And therefore it comes as no surprise that this butcher has given new meaning to the term prime beef: He hacks off the remains of tenants who've mysteriously disappeared, and sells the human tissue (for corn) to each unsuspecting cubbyhole flat, where it's ritualistically consumed. Coming from the culture that gave us flambeed steak Diane, this take on French gastronomy cuts deeper than a guillotine.
More cannibal than Hannibal, Delicatessen is a cross between a Sweeney Todd and Soylent Green. But it's a one-joke samba that, at a lean 95 minutes, still feels stretched out. And, mon ami, it's as heavy-handed as a tenderizing mallet.
Some of Jeunet and Caro's character sketching is economical and superefficient. The postman totes his own gun. The crass butcher's daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) is a refined, cello-playing blonde whose myopia implies an almost voluntary nearsightedness. A hermit cultivates a mountain of snails and an army of frogs -- remember, in France they eat escargots and grenouilles like burgers and fries -- in a dank basement. A former circus clown (played by Jeunet) who answers the butcher's ad for a handyman -- possibly to be chopped to bits and served later -- woos the daughter. Then there are the troglodistes, a regiment of vegetarian underground dwellers (they eat lentils) who defy the carnivorous ways of the delicatessen. The troglodytes don wet suits, goggles, and helmets, and constantly make fools of themselves -- call them Aged Mutant Ninja Troglos.
It's rare to witness a film created by two individuals showing such a singularity of purpose. Jeunet and Caro are reminiscent, in fact, of such fraternal film tandems as America's Joel and Ethan Coen and Italy's Vittorio and Paolo Taviani -- high praise, certainly. But their auctorial vision is no match for their virtuosity with the camera. Delicatessen, for all its craftiness, is built on stilts; the ideas are anarchic-chic, rehashed.
Consider the most captivating sequence in the film. It begins with the butcher making love, heaving forward and backward, in the throes of a sexual frenzy over a creaky bed, with shots of similarly motor-rhythmic activity from the other apartments introduced -- the daughter's cello practice, a woman pounding dust off a carpet, a man inflating a bicycle tire, another rolling paint on the ceiling. To and fro, each beat gets progressively faster during the course of the assignation, with intimate close-ups of each stroke and a musical ostinato highlighted and intensified until the critical moment, when the butcher's orgasm breaks forth and all the combined momentum in the other rooms is severed, like the decapitation of a head. It's a music video in miniature, brilliant of its kind, but utterly senseless in aid of the themes Delicatessen purports to examine, such as the parallel between cannibalism and political organization. Small wonder this bonking ballet was used as the promotional trailer for Delicatessen inthe United States. You don't need to seeany more.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, and Gilles Adrien; with Marie-Laure Dougnac, Dominique Pinon, Jean Claude Dreyfus, and Karin Viard.
In French with subtitles.
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