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:


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?


Coming Up: 
July 22: American History X
August 5: Heathers
August 19: Buffalo ‘66