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There are indisputable arguments to be made on behalf of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of widely admired movies like City Of Lost Children and Amélie. He’s a craftsman of the first order, one of a small handful of filmmakers—the Coens and David Fincher are others—who exercise complete, impeccable control over their effects. He has a vision that’s consistent and instantly recognizable, a mix of darkness and whimsy that tilts decisively toward the latter, and a cinematic universe defined by order and fate’s guiding hand. And his impact in transforming French cinema—or at least opening it up to Hollywood’s plasticity and commercial slickness—cannot be understated, regardless of whether you believe this kind of diversification is a healthy development. In short, he possesses a strong, clear, complete vision, and that’s a rare quality for any artist.
And yet, 19 years and six features later, I regret to confess that I haven’t warmed to that vision. In fact, Jeunet’s habit of repeating himself from project to project, running the same themes and syncopated sequences through alternating genres, has retroactively spoiled my fondness for his earlier work. Revisiting Delicatessen for the first time since Jeunet and his erstwhile partner Marc Caro (who co-scripted, storyboarded, and gets co-directing credit) debuted the film to instant cult acclaim in 1991, I had hoped and expected that the charms of its oddly buoyant post-apocalypse would wash away the bad taste left by the mechanized romanticism of Amélie. Perhaps inevitably, what seemed at the time like an original, preternaturally confident piece of filmmaking could only be diminished by Jeunet’s subsequent work, though Delicatessen does retain its share of small pleasures.
For one, Delicatessen introduced the first and most enduring example of what would become Jeunet’s stylistic signature: the Rube Goldberg setpiece. Much of the escapist draw of Jeunet’s work, beyond even the enveloping science-fiction/fantasy/etc. world he and his crew labor so scrupulously to create, is his ability to manufacture order out of chaos. We live in a world governed by seemingly random, senseless events and circumstances, yet here are Jeunet and Caro bringing characters and actions together in pleasing rhythms and patterns, as if the universe were an intricately connected, highly functional, supremely rational machine. So while the following sequence—which was smartly packaged and released as the trailer—works well enough as zany comedy, it’s satisfying more for its orderly, musical beats:
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Arriving 15 minutes into the film, the sequence neatly establishes the grim tenement setting of Delicatessen as a living organism, unifying its beaten-down residents as they go about their daily rituals. All cower in fear of their landlord, a cannibalistic butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) whose ground-floor deli offers the rare delicacy of meat in a post-apocalyptic world where grain is used as currency and meat is in short supply. Oblivious to the fate of the last handyman, former circus clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) responds to an ad (in Hard Times newspaper) offering a room in exchange for doing odd jobs around the building. Louison’s ebullience brightens the place considerably, at least for as long as he remains blissfully unaware that his employer is Sweeney Todd.
Though it keeps tabs on several of the other quirky residents—a pair of siblings who manufacture cylindrical cow-sound toys, a man who lives in a watery habitat for snails and frogs, a woman with voices in her head that coax her into elaborate suicide attempts—the heart of Delicatessen is the puppy-dog romance between Louison and the butcher’s shy, bespectacled daughter Julie, played by Marie-Laure Dougnac. Keenly aware of what happens to handymen in the building, Julie seeks to save Louison by contacting “the Troglodytes,” an underground battalion of radical vegetarians that seeks to rise up against its carnivorous oppressors.
Jeunet, Caro, and their co-screenwriter Gilles Adrien provide zero context for this clash between the Troglodytes and their surface-dwelling adversaries, nor do they address whatever political conflict or natural catastrophe might have led to this apocalypse in the first place. It’s never been Jeunet’s style to make any substantive associations between his fantasy world and the real one—unlike, say, Guillermo Del Toro did with far more enriching movies like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth—and Delicatessen is no exception. For a movie about cannibalism and post-apocalyptic bondage and squalor, Delicatessen is more “dark” than dark, carrying a tone that’s weirdly glancing and affectless, in spite of content that by all rights should be disturbing.
Perhaps that’s why the best scenes in the film involve the sweet courtship between Louison and Julie, which at its best resembles something out of silent comedy, like Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights. Though no longer with the circus, Louison remains a clown in spirit and appearance; he’s kept the oversized shoes, likely because he can’t afford a different pair. Pinon, a Jeunet regular, maintains a cheery demeanor that belies his character’s dire circumstances, which reflects either his resilience or his naïveté. And Julie, for her part, is an innocent who can barely summon up the courage to invite a misfit like Louison up for tea, let alone stand up to her father. In this lovely sequence, which owes much to its classic comedy influences (Chaplin chief among them), Julie decides to remove her Coke-bottle glasses to look more attractive to Louison, but her careful choreography immediately goes awry:
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It takes no small talent to get the timing of a scene like that right, but Jeunet’s facility for precisely calibrated moments and sequences are also his undoing. All the elements in his movies are subject to the same sterile, fussily technical calculation, so they come out looking alike, whether they’re about dark matters like cannibalism (Delicatessen), dream-stealing (City Of Lost Children), or World War I (A Very Long Engagement), or about a twinkly-eyed waitress who unites seemingly every lonely-heart in Montmartre (Amélie). The more movies he makes, the less I understand why he’s making them, other than as lovingly stylized delivery systems for whimsy. A film like Delicatessen, especially once the Troglodyte-related mayhem takes over in the third act, doesn’t just contain Rube Goldberg devices—it is a Rube Goldberg device, and it’s hard to fathom the purpose of the contraption. I’m reminded of a David Thewlis rant in Naked where he marvels over how the human body is “the most sophisticated mechanism in the entire universe,” like “a wet, pink factory,” but wonders: “What the fuck are they makin’ in there? I mean, what’s the product? You never see no delivery trucks comin’ and goin’, do you?”
At the time, Delicatessen seemed like a diverting exercise from a clearly gifted filmmaking team—the great cinematographer, Darius Khondji, went on to shoot Seven—and a nice companion to Barton Fink, which came out the same year and took place in similarly surreal and dilapidated living quarters. But while individual sequences haven’t lost their charming panache, the arc of Jeunet's career on the whole has made the film look less like a striking debut than the first example of the narrow shtick to come. He continues to retain a cult following, and for understandable reasons: He creates filmic universes that are singular, heavily attenuated, and no doubt enveloping for the people who keep returning to them. And yet, the question lingers: What is the product?
July 22: American History X
August 5: Heathers
August 19: Buffalo ‘66