Back before the internet made it easier for us all to have large movie libraries available to us at the touch of a button there were less ways to ease yourself into the world of foreign cinema. A few arthouse movies were around, and some good ones still remain, and the other main option, here in the UK, was to scour the TV schedules to see what was being shown later on at night (usually on Channel 4). I believe that I first saw Delicatessen thanks to the latter option, as I was too young and too cowardly, and probably a bit too miserly, to visit the arthouse cinemas. Thankfully, I fell in love with the movie, leading me to become a big fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and also leading me further and further down the rabbit-hole of movie obsession.
Jeunet co-directs with Marc Caro, and the two also co-wrote the script with Gilles Adrien, and it’s an impressive feature debut, letting audiences know immediately that here is a director with a particular vision, a warped sense of humour, and an ability to romanticise events in the most unexpected ways. It’s this blend that eventually landed him the big job helming Alien: Resurrection, and this blend that was then criticised when that film was released (which also happened to Fincher, of course).
Dominique Pinon plays Louison, a man who turns up at a run-down apartment block in answer to an ad for a handyman. He’s an ex-circus performer, which means he can come up with inventive and amusing ways to deal with particular problems, but that is of no consequence to Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the man who hired him. Clapet is busy trying to supply food to his tenants, which he does by occasionally picking off one of the weaker tenants and then transforming the body into food he can sell over the counter in his butcher shop. It looks like Louison may be soon due for the chopping block, although he remains blissfully ignorant, but in the meantime he connects with Julie (Claoet’s daughter, played by Marie-Laure Dougnac) and impresses some of the other tenants with his skills.
Although set in a vague post-apocalyptic world, featuring cannibalism and multiple suicide attempts, Delicatessen is very much a comedy, and it’s one that also pays homage to the comedy of the past that we see less and less nowadays. A couple of set-pieces are absolutely vaudevillian, wonderfully so, and the audio is just as important as the colour palette in providing texture and gags.
Pinon is the star, which is highlighted in those aforementioned set-pieces, but he’s supported by a great performance from Dougnac. Dreyfus is appropriately gruff and intimidating to most of the people he deals with, and Karin Viard shines in a role that initially feels slightly superfluous before developing into an integral part of the third act.
If you’ve somehow yet to sample the cinematic delights of Jean-Pierre Jeunet then this is as good a place to start as any. It has most of the hallmarks that would appear in so many of his later movies (from Amelie to Micmacs to The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet). And it’s a rollicking good way to spend just over an hour and a half.
DIRECTOR: JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET, MARC CARO
WRITER: JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET, MARC CARO, GILLES ADRIEN
STARS: DOMINIQUE PINON, MARIE-LAURE DOUGNAC, JEAN-CLAUDE DREYFUS, KARIN VIARD,
RUNTIME: 99 MINS APPROX