Delicatessen (1991) Delicatessen (1991) ***

     There aren’t too many post-apocalyptic dystopian comedies out there. I suppose that makes sense. Shiva knows I haven’t been finding much to laugh about in the pre-apocalyptic dystopia we’ve all been living through this past decade and change. And yet Delicatessen, the first feature film from either of its co-auteurs, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, goes even further than to invite laughter at the end of the world as we know it and the immiseration of all those who survive the collapse. It also invites us to laugh at the cannibalism to which some of those survivors have resorted in response to the disruption of the regular food supply. This movie’s biggest and best joke, though, is how absolutely committed most of its characters are to continuing on in the normal course of their lives, despite being surrounded by a world in which literally nothing is normal anymore.

     We never do learn what fate befell civilization. The state of the one city block where the film takes place suggests that a fair amount of physical destruction was involved, but nothing like what you’d expect if, say, a half-dozen Soviet hydrogen bombs landed on Paris. There was clearly an ecological dimension as well, because agriculture is now so problematic that non-perishable foodstuffs like grains and legumes have replaced cash as the generally accepted medium of exchange. Just the same, people still have jobs. They still pay rent for their dwellings. There’s still a postal service, although the rough and gruff demeanor of the one postman we see (Chick Ortega) suggests that it might function more like a mechanized version of the Pony Express than like any modern mail-carrying outfit. Other typical features of 20th-century life that survived the apocalypse at least in truncated form include newspapers, taxi services, television broadcast, and, oddly enough, circuses. And because this is France, the end of the world has certainly not put an end to organized political unrest. The malcontents here are the Troglodists, militant advocates of a subterranean lifestyle in the Parisian sewers and utility tunnels. You might expect, based on that alone, that Troglodism shouldn’t pose a threat to the remains of the established order, but another of the movement’s positions is disruptive indeed: not only do the Troglodists steal “money” from the surface-dwellers whenever they can, but they take it permanently out of circulation by eating it!

     Anyway, the central venue for this story is the dilapidated building owned by a butcher named Clapet (Jean Claude Dreyfus, from Immoral Women and a French version of The Picture of Dorian Gray that I never knew about until I looked up Dreyfus’s resumé). Clapet’s deli occupies most of the street level, together with the workshop where Robert (a guy identified only as Rufus, who was also in Caro and Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children) and Roger (Jacques Mathou, from The Visitors II: The Corridors of Time) manufacture noisemakers mimicking the vocalizations of various animals. (It’s unclear whether these are meant as hunting aids, after the manner of duck calls, or whether they’re toys for people who are nostalgic for barnyard animals that have gone extinct.) Then on the upper floors are perhaps seven or eight apartments, which Clapet rents out to generate the bulk of his considerable income. One of those flats serves a special purpose, however. It’s reserved for Clapet’s handyman— a position that sees a great deal of turnover, even despite the apparent scarcity of both steady work and residences fit for human habitation in post-apocalyptic Paris. That’s because Clapet employs each handyman in turn just long enough to fatten him up for slaughter. I mean, where did you think the butcher was getting his raw materials? The current handyman (Pascal Benezech) has caught on, however, and the film opens with his unsuccessful bid to smuggle himself out of the building with the trash.

     Soon thereafter, Clapet’s next want ad is answered by Stan Louison (Dominique Pinon, of Alien Resurrection and Humans). Louison used to be a professional circus clown, but he gave it up after his longtime partner, a chimpanzee called Professor Livingstone, was killed and eaten by a hungry mob. Stan seems a little scrawny for Clapet’s purposes, whether as a handyman or as a side of long pig, but there isn’t exactly a line around the block of people seeking the position. He gets the job, for all the good that’s likely to do him later. Most of the first act consists of Louison’s introductions to and interactions with Clapet’s weirdo tenants: the aforementioned Robert and Roger; the long-suffering Georges Interligator (Jean-François Perrier) and his loony wife, Aurore (Silvie Laguna, from Inception and Hell Phone), the latter of whom is forever devising Rube Goldberg deathtraps for herself in obedience to the voices in her head; the perpetually horny Miss Plusse (Karin Viard, of A Children’s Game); the demented old man (Howard Vernon, from Howl of the Devil and Zombie Lake) who has converted his leaky basement flat into a preserve for frogs and snails; and the defiantly bourgeois Tapioca family. More importantly, it also concerns the tentative start of a love affair between Stan and Clapet’s pretty but half-blind daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), who comes to Louison’s attention when he overhears her playing her cello in her suite at the top of the house.

     Obviously that’s going to provoke a sharp difference of opinion between Julie and her dad on the subject of killing and eating the new handyman. Also, Louison turns out to be unexpectedly good at actually fixing up the place, so Clapet has incentives of his own for not taking a cleaver to him just yet. In any case, there’s an obvious stopgap alternative available. Marcel Tapioca (Ticky Holgado, from Madame Claude 2 and Beautiful, Blonde, and Bronzed) is behind on his rent, and really, how much longer was his old mother-in-law (Edith Ker, of Fantomas Unleashed and The Girl’s Dead, Man) going to live anyway? Mrs. Tapioca (The Stolen Diary’s Anne-Marie Pisani) might grumble a little, but she’s been nagging Clapet for fresh meat louder than anybody lately. The farcical midnight ambush that claims the old lady can’t mean more than a temporary reprieve for Louison, however, so if Julie really wants to save him, she’ll have to do something drastic. She’ll have to find a nest of Troglodists, and tell them about the 30 sacks of corn that her dad has stashed away in the garret.

     Delicatessen is largely innocent of plot for much of its length, but that’s okay. Its mood of jet-black zaniness is so close to unique (only Terry Gilliam’s Brazil bears it much resemblance) that the film can coast on that alone for as much as half an hour at a stretch, no problem. Clapet’s tenants are fun to watch, even— indeed, especially— when whatever they’re doing has no connection at all to Louison’s looming date with the landlord’s chopping block. Naturally, I of all people was most taken with Howard Vernon and his artificial frog-swamp of an apartment, but everybody gets a moment to shine here and there, particularly when their interactions offer a glimpse into one of the myriad strange little stories that had presumably been playing out for years before Stan ever arrived on Clapet’s doorstep. For instance, there’s a bit where Robert, obviously long smitten with Aurore Interligator, tries to flirt by asking her whether the voices in her head ever talk about him. “Yes,” she replies in total earnest. “They say things like, ‘Robert is a pervert asswipe panty-eater’.” The biggest surprise, though, is how comfortably all that screwball darkness sits alongside the oddly sincere sweetness of the budding romance between Stan and Julie. Their scenes often play like an unexpected foreshadowing of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s later international hit, Amelie, although Julie is nowhere near as exhaustingly hyperkinetic as that movie’s heroine, and has her head screwed on much tighter in spite of all the madness surrounding her. That unabashed commitment to sappiness gives a degree of weight to the climactic free-for-all bringing together the couple themselves, Clapet and the cannibal tenants, and the Troglodist commandos fucking up their mission to rescue Louison, which that madcap set-piece would not otherwise have possessed. Although Delicatessen remains a slight movie even then, it’s deliberately slight, and its creators consistently make a virtue of its slightness.



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