Apart from my ongoing fascination with Isabelle Huppert – forty years and counting – most of my small collection of French films come from a brief burst of enthusiasm nearly twenty years ago. Delicatessen is one of these films and though at the start of the day I couldn’t have told you what spurred me on to buy it, a demi-memory of watching a particular clip, coupled with the presence of the busty Karin Viard (who I’d enjoyed in another French film of my collection) suggests a reason to have taken a chance on it, probably when the HMV Shop had a sale on!
Delicatessen, made in 1990, was the debut film from directors Jen-Perre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It’s a post-Apocalypse black comedy – black farce, in many ways – starring Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfuss and Viard, plus a dozen or so supporting grotesques and clowns.
It’s set in and around a dilapidated, half-demolished building, owned by the Butcher Clapet (Dreyfuss), occupied by various boarders. Outside, the air is smoky and dirty, suggesting the permanent after-life of an atomic explosion. Inside, the place is falling to bits anyway, as is everybody in it except Clapet’s mistress, Mademoiselle Plusse (Viard). Meat is scarce and grain has become currency. Clapet keeps the building stocked with meat by advertising a job for a handyman.
Enter Louison (Pinon) an unemployed, indeed redundant circus clown, once half of a double act, ‘Stan and Livingstone’. Indeed, there’s a certain Laurelesque aspect to Louuison, with his rubbery face, his imperturbability, his general air of separation from everyone else around him. Anyway, the double act broke up in tragic fashion: Livingstone was an ape, you see, and one day after a performance, he was kidnapped. And eaten.
Like I said, meat is scarce. The meat Clapet supplies to his customers is handymen, and Louison’s next.
A post-Apocalytic cannibalism black comedy.
The film, and Clapet, stalls out the inevitable conflict by having the resourceful Louison prove to be so good at maintenance that, in the face of complaints from his hungry customers, Clapet keeps postponing the moment when Louison meets the cleavers. This provides enough time for Louison to come to the attention of Clapet’s estranged, cello-playing daughter, Julie (Dougnac), whose flat is on the top floor. Julia, who is blind as a bat without her glasses, falls in love with Louison and pleads for him to be spared, unsuccessfully. So she calls in the Troglodists.
These are a literally underground gang of rebels, living in the sewers in black, shiny wetsuits, who are, of all radical things in this remnant of society, vegetarians. Julie secretly broadcasts to them, using a radio set disguised as a coffee grinder, and enlists them to kidnap Louison to save him, bribing them with her father’s grainstores in the cellar. Needless to say, they get Mselle Plusse instead.
It all comes together in a broad, slapstick sequence that lasts the final quarter of the film, in which, in true It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World fashion, destroys everything, including Clapet in a bizarre but brilliant manner.
What holds the film together is its attention to creating its own little bubble world. Jeunet and Caro intended Delicatessen to be an homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the influence of which is clear once spelled out. It lacks Brazil‘s expansiveness and its world-building, going to the opposite end in confining itself to a small, almost stage-like setting, and choosing to run with dirt, dilapidation and decay as its binding imagery, instead of the very rigorous cleanliness of its inspiration.
And whilst Brazil takes its cue from the Forties, Delicatessen is very much in the Fifties mode: hairstyles, clothing, technology, attitudes, all of which it skillfully sets against its ultraviolet humour, setting it yet further in contrast to the very rigid mores of the period it recreates.
There isn’t much of a storyline in itself. Each of the supporting characters form their own little world, existing at an odd angle to strict sanity, and the film sustains itself on a succession of little set-pieces. The highlight amongst these are the ongoing attempts of Madame Aurore (a splendidly gawky example of an angular, buck-toothed French matron, played brilliantly by Silvie Laguna) to commit suicide in ever more complex fashions, all of which founder on farcical accidents until, having changed her mind, she accidentally blows up her apartment, alone with herself and her long-suffering and patient husband, Georges.
Clapet himself (Dreyfuss) is a monster, a speak-his-mind, overwhelming hulk of a man, and his lunatic energy drives the conclusion forward, but the heart of the film is the relationship between the little clown, Louison, and the shy, repressed, hopeful Julie. Dougnac is simply lovely in the role. She’s supposed to be plain, and a bit skinny, especially when contrasted with the voluptuous Viard, and the extended tea scene, when she’s left off her glasses to try to look her best for Louison, except that she can’t see to pour tea into a cup, best demonstrates the kind of desperation of a supposed ‘Old Maid’, grasping at any kind of kind face.
But I found Marie-Laure Dougnac to be lovely in herself, in exactly the way she’s supposed to be, and the film accords her the right to be delightful as Julie, with her masses of long blonde hair. As well as the tea scene, there’s a wonderfully silly, yet touching moment when, on discovering Julie plays the cello, Louison admits to playing an instrument and accompanies her on an affecting duet: her cello and his musical saw.
That’s the clue to the film’s ending, because it doesn’t really have one. The milieu doesn’t allow of it, the film’s overall lack of a serial spine leaves it stranded. Louison escapes, Clapet dies, the building is symbolically cleansed by a flood that the lovers create, washing away everyone but the old guy who lives in dampness and squalor in the basement because it attracts the frogs and snails – and what do Les Francaises like to eat? – and the film ends on the roof, the next morning, with Louison and Julie duetting on musical saw and cello.
It’s a dark film full of dark comedy on a dark subject that it deftly blurs into obscurity by simultaneously treating it with an internal consistency and seriousness but delivering it in tones of farce and grotesquerie. Before watching it again today, I had half a mind to put the DVD on eBay after finishing with it, but I’ve changed my mind. It’ll never be something to watch regularly, but I’ll still keep it, if only for the lovely Marie-Laure Dougnac.
According to Wikipedia, she’s spent most of her career dubbing English voices into French instead of appearing on the screen. According to Google Images, she’s still a delightful looking lady, with a shining smile, so I personally regard that as a shame. She’s the light that illuminates Delicatessen, the essential element that let’s the film’s darkness be funny. Without her, this film folds in on itself as a deliberate exercise in distastefulness. The lady is a star, in all respects.