In many ways, Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the French Terry Gilliam. Both men started out as animators, gaining experience alongside likeminded partners—Gilliam with the other members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Jeunet with longtime collaborator Marc Caro. Jeunet and Gilliam both developed into consummate cinematic fantasists whose films look and feel remarkable, even when they overcalculate or overreach. And both stumbled in their early directorial careers—Gilliam with Time Bandits, and Jeunet and Caro with their debut feature, 1991's Delicatessen. Those stylistically sloppy early films tend to blunt the directors' ambitions with anything-goes narrative flightiness. But they still show the roots of the talent that grew remarkably quickly into a more assured polish.
Delicatessen opens in a post-apocalyptic town where diseased-looking, yellowish fog hangs over the few standing buildings, isolating them into scrofulous pockets of humanity where atrocities can breed unnoticed. Perennial Jeunet feature Dominique Pinon naïvely enters one such pocket, a squalid, tumbledown tenement building under the sway of a butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who's taken to advertising for handymen, then chopping up the applicants to feed his tenants. Most of the latter are outsized Gilliam-esque characters: a man living in a dankly flooded apartment, where he breeds and devours snails and frogs; a depressed woman whose suicide attempts involve elaborate Rube Goldberg devices; and Dreyfus' nearsighted daughter Marie-Laure Dougnac, who sympathizes with Pinon and awkwardly attempts to woo him.
As of Delicatessen, Jeunet and Caro hadn't refined the richly elaborate design that characterized their later collaboration The City Of Lost Children and Jeunet's solo directorial projects. The color scheme is artfully calculated but occasionally muddy, and the distorting lenses and quirky angles are more distracting than striking. But the filmmakers' inventiveness comes through repeatedly, in setpieces ranging from the opening credits (a long, winding pan through a trash-heap featuring the relevant names and titles) to a scene where the entire tenement falls into step with the rhythm of Dreyfus' creaking bedsprings. And their energetic surrealism keeps the film perpetually off-balance and lunging unpredictably forward. Eventually, Delicatessen descends into raw grotesquerie and excess. But first, it serves as an ample experimental field and proving ground for a wild talent that's thankfully become more disciplined with time.
Key features: Actor and set screen tests; a lively, informative Jeunet commentary in French, with subtitles.