"I take orders from the Octoboss."


“Just like you said, the wind’s shifting. Everyone’s gonna get it.”

At the 65th Academy Awards, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar went to a French film – the historical drama INDOCHINE. I’m sure it was great, but people like me didn’t know to pay attention to movies like that. We paid attention to the French film that we heard was really cool looking and darkly funny and had something to do with cannibalism. That was DELICATESSEN, the feature debut of directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, which Miramax released in the U.S. on April 3, 1992, a year after it came out in France.

I don’t know how many screens it played on, because it didn’t make enough to show up on the box office charts, but I think it traveled around for a while. I remember seeing ads for it at the arthouse theaters – it was a much discussed cult movie of its time. Since this is maybe the most interesting of the April releases that kept playing into the summer it seemed like the best way to kick off this 1992 – Weird Summer series.

I think this was my first revisit since the mid-‘90s. Though I remembered it “had something to do with cannibalism” I forgot that the bulging eyes on the poster belong to a man (Pascal Benezech) attempting to escape being eaten. He makes himself a suit out of garbage (as one does) and tries to be taken out with the trash, but it doesn’t work – the butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, DOG DAY) swings his cleaver at him right before the title comes up. Clapet seems to own the apartment building above his shop, and immediately after the credits the tenants jockey to trade him small bags of grain and legumes for this fresh human meat.

Our protagonist, Louison (Dominique Pinon, THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE) is the next guy intended for the same fate, a former clown who responds to an ad offering room and board to a handyman. He moves in and starts working, having no idea that all his neighbors expect to eat him eventually. This gets more complicated when some of them realize they like him.

Most on Louison’s side is Clapet’s own daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), who quickly gets a crush on him. It’s funny, we now think of Jeunet as an aggressively whimsical director, but back then I think I got thrown off by the dark humor and setting. I forgot how much of this thing is cute shtick, including a really funny scene where Julie is alone practicing how to smile and sit and walk across the apartment with her glasses off when Louison comes over for tea. He doesn’t know she can’t see so he doesn’t know that she doesn’t know she’s spilling tea all over the place.

One of the goofiest and most memorable scenes involves Clapet having sex with his way-out-of-his-league girlfriend Mademoiselle Plusse (Karin Viard). The squeaking of a spring in the mattress echoes through the pipes of the buildings and subconsciously changes the rhythm of what everyone is doing: Louison painting a ceiling, Julie playing cello, others hitting a rug to knock the dirt off, pumping a bicycle tire, drilling holes, knitting. As the speed of the sex increases so does that of the other activities, and as Clapet orgasms Louison falls, a cello string snaps, the bike tire pops, etc. A nice little comedic set piece that shows how intertwined the lives and fates of the people in this building are.

Julie and Louison’s relationship really picks up when he brings over his musical saw (which he used to play in an act with his chimp partner Mr. Livingstone) and duets with her. There’s something beautiful about people being able to share these nice moments together despite living in such a dystopia. I hope that’s true. We’ll find out soon, I’m sure!

As the girlfriend of the evil butcher you’d think Mademoiselle Plusse would be a jerk, but she’s maybe my favorite character. She calls Louison over to try to fix the squeaking mattress spring, and she says, “This is an antique. It’s seen alot of use.” I love the contrast of this provocative comment with the complete innocence of the situation. It doesn’t seem like she’s flirting with him or that he’s uncomfortable sitting on her bed with her. He seems too focused on doing the job to think about it. They sit next to each other and slowly bounce – he intently listens and very seriously leads her in leaning in different directions to test it. It plays almost like a dance sequence.

I expected Clapet to walk in and get the wrong idea. Instead that sort of scenario happens later with Julie finding Louison and Mademoiselle dancing together. I love it because it’s such a silly thing to be caught doing and feel guilty about – she’s shaking maracas and he’s dancing around with a fake third leg playing a tiny ukelele. But Mademoiselle especially looks so genuinely joyful, and to Julie it seems like a violation that Louison is sharing his act with someone – especially her hot step-mom! – before her. Something more intimate than sex in the world of this movie.

What Julie doesn’t know is that Mademoiselle was originally looking for her, to tell her how much her father wants her to forgive him, but she stopped to tell Louison that his act was going to be on TV. She sees Julie upset, immediately feels terrible and tries to go talk to her about it – the thing you should do in these situations that people usually don’t do in movies and TV.

Anyway Julie forgives Louison and goes down in the sewers to convince a literally and figuratively underground army of vegetarian rebels called the Troglodists to rescue him before he gets eaten. So it’s a romance. Also I should mention that Louison has a cool knife called “The Australian” that he knows how to throw like a boomerang.

The melding of that Jeunet whimsy with a world of awfulness gives this a really unique flavor. I almost called it juxtaposition, but I don’t think that’s quite right. There’s no irony to it. To me the movie seems not to mock but to glorify this clown and his positive attitude, even if it comes more out of cluelessness than optimism.

Jeunet & Caro also combine the cute with the absolutely grim. A neighbor lady named Aurore (Silvie Laguna) keeps trying to commit suicide via fanciful Rube Goldberg contraptions, only to be accidentally foiled. She asks a poor schmo who’s in love with her to come over – a way to get him to ring her doorbell, causing a sewing machine to stitch a strip of fabric which will pull a lamp off a ledge into her bath tub. The lamp unplugs just in time to spare her life, thanks to vibrations caused by Louison trying to repair the squeaky spring. Once again that mattress affecting other people in the building.

It’s a unique approach to a post-apocalypse. We mostly know it’s one because of some cool model shots of wrecked buildings. Otherwise it could just be a depression, or a drought. The situation is horrible – I mean, that’s obvious. People have turned to cannibalism. Some people think the crops will start growing back, but Clapet thinks that’s naive. The darkest joke about it all is the guy who tries to offer a “rat call” as a valuable item. A thing that makes a sound that attracts rats, presumably so you can catch them for meat. The punchline is that it’s worthless because there are no rats left.

And yet we still have civilization. Apartments. Shops. Taxis. Jobs. Garbage trucks! There’s even a newspaper being published (though it’s called Harsh Times), and TV stations broadcasting. Compared to any MAD MAX sequel or similar, things aren’t that bad. The couple in WHEN THE WIND BLOWS wouldn’t notice anything was off. I think this somewhat civilized wasteland adds a nice layer of satire to the proceedings. Being less removed from life today, they seem more like us. And if they’re like us then apparently we would be willing to sacrifice the “don’t kill a guy for meat” part of our morals in exchange for survival and a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

That’s where everybody in this apartment is at when the movie starts. Seemingly nice people who nevertheless were willing to eat that failed garbage escaper, and are ready to do it again with Louison. Absolutely savage. But it’s Louison’s personality, and Julie’s fondness for him, that changes things. Even Clapet gets a soft spot for him, says “He’s not a bad guy,” admits he feels bad about his previous kills, who he even refers to as his victims.

It can’t be underestimated how important the visuals were to the success of this movie. The popular comparison was to the films of Terry Gilliam, who in fact lent his name as a presenter for the North American release. It has an eerie jaundiced tint to the lighting (more unusual in the analog days than it is now), and atmospheric fog that obscures most of what lies beyond the building. The movement of the camera sometimes illustrates the geography of the world, for example it floats into a stove and through the pipes following sounds to show us that they carry to other apartments. But the angles and movements get even more stylized during a nightmare sequence that reminds me of a Sam Raimi movie. This is the third film by cinematographer Darius Khondji, in my opinion one of the greats of his era. He went on to shoot more of Jeunet’s movies as well as SE7EN, STEALING BEAUTY, EVITA, OKJA and UNCUT GEMS.

Caro is credited as the production designer, and reportedly concentrated on the visual side of directing while Jeunet worked with the actors. The art director is Milijen Kreka Klijakovic (production designer of TIME OF THE GYPSIES, ARIZONA DREAM, UNDERGROUND, THE BRAVE and, uh, SPECIES II).

By the way, when was the last time you saw a really great credit sequence? Kind of a lost art, I’d say. You see a lovingly crafted one like this and you know these people really give a shit about making the best movie they can. They want every little detail to be great, even the details you can get away with ignoring. No time for that these days. At best they get the computer guys to do some fancy motion graphic credits to show at the end while most people are leaving.

There’s a thing I don’t understand where certain people get mad at directors who make great looking movies. I guess they think if it has style that means it has no substance, or they think it’s a cheat to use the visual part of a visual medium, or they’re just really proud of themselves for noticing an artist has a distinct style that they can recognize in more than one movie and they’re like “AH HA! I CAUGHT YOU! NOW YOU MUST BE PUNISHED!

Personally I find this attitude confounding and even sacreligious as a movie worshiper. I love directors who put great care into making every little thing on screen pleasing to the eye. I appreciate Jeunet & Caro (and later Jeunet minus Caro) for making movies where every set, every prop, every piece of clothing, every textured surface is either created or curated to be just right for this world that exists only on screen. And come to think of it, the faces and bodies of their actors always fit perfectly into that world too. (Casting by Pierre-Jacques Benichou, DOBERMANN, THE CRIMSON RIVERS, THE ASSAULT.)

Like Gilliam or Tim Burton, Jeunet and Caro had a background in animation before settling into live action features. They met at the Annecy Animation Festival in the ’70s and directed stop motion shorts together in 1978 and 1980. In 1981 they made the 23 minute live action short Bunker of the Last Gunshots, set in a post-apocalyptic world similar to DELICATESSEN’s. They also made a number of commercials and music videos, both together and apart, where I suspect they perfected the look and feel of DELICATESSEN, which feels so assured for first timers.

A few years after receiving world wide attention during Weird Summer, the Jeunet & Caro team reached their peak with the dark fantasy THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995), which really got the attention of Hollywood and broke up the team. Jeunet couldn’t resist the opportunity to direct a big franchise film, but Caro wasn’t interested in the sellout/compromise thing, so he provided some designs and then hit the road. Jeunet continued his solo act, with his biggest success being AMELIE (2001). This year he returned after a long absence with the straight to Netflix jam BIGBUG. Caro has directed one feature on his own, the 2008 sci-fi film DANTE 01.

important note: Marie-Laure Dougnac, who played Julie, does alot of French dubbing for American films, including as the voice of Parker Posey’s character Danica Talos in BLADE: TRINITY.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 13th, 2022 at 2:23 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Delicatessen”

  1. What a great introduction to your “1992: Weird Summer” series. I haven’t seen this movie since maybe 2003 or 2004. A rewatch is due (plus getting around to watch BIGBUG on my Netflix queue).
    Great review!

  2. As I mentioned in the introduction to the series, that year I was slowly getting drawn to movies, thanks to finally being allowed in German video stores and looking at all kinds of covers. This one particularly caught my eye, because the German poster showed the pic of Pinon with the cleaver in his head. In the movie he is of course just kidding, but out of context, together with the movie’s title, it made 10 year old CJ think that this must be something like TEXAS CHAIN SAW or whatever.

    Don’t know if I saw LOST CHILDREN or this one first, but I discovered them around the time ALIEN: RESURRECTION was in production and got really excited when I realized who they picked as director. (Still have to watch BIGBUG. Everybody seems to hate it, but maybe it’s just too…French for most people?)

  3. This is one of the few foreign (to us) language films to reach Number 1 at the UK Box Office. A few years ago I worked with a woman in her early 60s who said this was her favourite film.

  4. At the time I really disliked this one, but now I think I was just being a snob. Besson and Beiniex (and Carax, but I didn’t get him so much back then either) had spent a decade giving us great Cinema du Look movies, only for these guys to show up and make a hit that everyone you knew just loved and, as Pacman notes, claimed for their favorite movie.

    I hope I’m wiser now and can see it for what it is. I still don’t love it, but it’s clever and fun. And yes, a good place to start a Weird Summer journey.

    But, man, don’t get me started on bloody AMELIE!

  5. Up until the private cinemas came along and ruined everything, French movies were always held in super high regard here in Norway. And Jeunet & Caro were perhaps the last heroes that were given the red carpet treatment. Love this movie, as well as THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, Ernest’s favourite AMELIE, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT and MICMACS.

  6. Honestly, I think AMELIE is brillant, but suffers from being too influential. Looking at it 20 years later, it’s another “everything is the most magical thing ever” hipster movie, that might be a bit hard to get through for people who didn’t see it, before this thinking was done to death by teenage girls on InstaTumblr and mumblecore indie directors who shoot their movies on their smartphones, but in general I think it’s great. although not even Jeunet’s best.

  7. I can confirm CJ’s theory. I loved DELICATESSEN and LOST CHILDREN but then for some reason I waited too long to see AMELIE and it was too late. Whole thing felt forced and insufferable. The whimsy had curdled. Amelie herself was supposed to be delightful but all I saw was that one entitled extrovert who thinks everybody else is just sitting around waiting to be saved from themselves. You’re just minding your own business and all of a sudden you’re some bored busybody’s project. I’m perfectly fine in my cave, thanks. If you try to Rube Goldberg me out of my shell one more time, I promise you I will get a restraining order.

    I really need to watch DELICATESSEN and LOST CHILDREN again, though. Good lord, it has been more than 20 years.

  8. Wow Vern, your writing has certainly evolved since that STEALING BEAUTY review.

    I mean I can still see you in there, but you gotta SQUINT.

    Well, except there wasn’t even one mention of that movie’s soundtrack, which was a masterpiece.

  9. I haven’t seen it in ages and barely remember anything but the squeaky bed scene and one of my favorite movie scenes ever: when Ticky Holgado’s character asks the butcher to test his “détecteur de conneries” (how did they translate that in English?).
    I watched AMELIE years after it came out so by then all the love and hate surrounding it had calmed down and I could enjoy it as a sweet and pretty movie, not something I had to take a stance on (and I thought it was funny that the movie was somewhat controversial here).

  10. Hurtado – Ha, I always hesitate before adding a link to a super old review like that. Sometimes I re-read it to make sure it’s not too embarrassing, which I didn’t do that time. I just thought it was funny that I actually reviewed a movie like that, which was out of character for me back than.

  11. Whimsy is akin to comedy in that it’s a live-or-die kind of proposition. If you can get on board with the whimsy or comedy, you’re gonna have a good time. If you can’t, it’s probably gonna be a pretty unbearable experience. Interesting that other genres are largely not like that — I think most of us love horror films, even if we’re virtually never even a little scared by them. Thrillers might be a lot of fun even if you’re never “thrilled.” But if a whimsy-bomb like AMELIE doesn’t fill you with eccentric delight, it’s gonna be a very fucking hard sit. There’s not a lot of people who think HAROLD AND MAUDE is “just OK.” It’s either delight, or agony.

    Toxic (Citizen Toxic?) — where were you living that AMELIE was “somewhat controversial”?

  12. I also hate HAROLD & MAUDE, so your story checks out.

  13. A good friend of mine (Who I dearly miss. I wish we would’ve stayed in contact after school. But that’s a different topic.) hated AMELIE because the visual style freaked her out. She said she tried to watch it, but was stressed out by the camera movements and sound design and turned it off halfways.

  14. I think AMELIE was controversial in France for its stereotypical take of an essentially white France.

    I’m not allergic to whimsy – I think HAROLD AND MAUDE caught me at the right age – nor even French whimsy – Louis Malle’s ZAZIE DANS LE METRO really is adorable – but with AMELIE the whimsy has truly curdled. Not only is it dishonest about France, it’s dishonest about love. It’s a gloopy bouillebaise of Nouvelle Vague highlights and Cinema du Look moves thrown against the screen with only the most glutinous bits sticking. And the narration is not fit to lick BABE’s trotters; now there’s a film that for all its apparent whimsy never let’s you forget stakes is high!

  15. Resident Clinton

    May 14th, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    I have such fond memories of DELICATESSEN. It came out the year I was working at an arthouse cinema in Denver and we had one of the rowdiest and most fun midnight staff screenings of this movie. It was a mind blower for us and all the staff were excited to talk anyone and everyone into seeing it. This film also hit me at just the right time and opened my eyes to the weirdness of world cinema that was out there (ie not everything was some slow moving artsy fartsy film like I’d been lead to believe), which lead me down a rabbit hole of discovery that I have yet to emerge from.

    But most of all I remember the trailer. It was just the squeaky bed scene – that’s it. No plot set up or anything. I would rush into the auditorium when I heard the trailer start just to watch the audience reaction, which was always pretty amazing. The only other trailer I did that with at the time was NAKED LUNCH because Burroughs (or a dang good sound alike) narrated it with sarcastic disdain. I had a 35mm reel with both of these trailers on it for years because I just loved them so much.

    Seriously, that Naked Lunch trailer is something else. Check it out.

    Naked Lunch (1991) ORIGINAL TRAILER [HD]

    The original trailer in high definition of Naked Lunck directed by David Cronenberg and starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Sch...

  16. Franchise Fred

    May 14th, 2022 at 9:55 pm

    Resident Clinton, more outhouse theater stories please! That’s awesome

  17. I’ve never seen DELICATESSEN (not that it ever would have played the theaters here… Yee-haw, y’all) and by 1992 I was past neck-deep into HK cinema. It sounds like something my dearly departed Crazy Mike’s would have had on the rental shelves, however, and I just may have passed it by for A BETTER TOMORROW II or A BULLET IN THE HEAD. It sounds like it holds up well, however, and I am admittedly a sucker for clever title sequences.

    And dammit, I am upset by the passing of Fred Ward. I know that his role in TREMORS deservedly gained him many a sci-fi & horror fan, but the role that made me a fan was his turn as Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom. He played the part with a curious mix of gruffness and pathos, and I’ve enjoyed his work ever since.

    “Fuckin’ A, Bubba.”

  18. @Mr. Subtlety, here in France, AMELIE was accused of being horribly, horribly racist and promoting some kind of white supremacist agenda, because there’s one minority actor in the film, and he plays a simpleton, so people who wanted to shit on the movie decided that it meant “Jeunet thinks Arabs are dumb, and believes the ideal Paris is 99% white”.
    French auteur cinema is 99% white anyway (at least it was at the time, it’s slightly better now), but it’s only racist when the auteur makes a ton of money like Jeunet did with AMELIE.

  19. Resident Clinton, DELICATESSEN and NAKED LUNCH are similarly linked in my mind. In fact the late 80s / early 90s were a magical time for weird arthouse genre movies. I associate THE DARK BACKWARD (which I still haven’t seen) and UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD with that era as well.

    There’s something very analog about the edgy alternative view of the world in these movies. I both do and don’t miss the dark, alienated, David Lynch-adjacent culture that prevailed in that last era before the Internet connected us all for better and worse.

    I’m surprised to hear DELICATESSEN got an April release here in the US. I associate that movie with sweaty summer, but maybe I’m remembering the dingy onscreen atmosphere of the movie itself rather than the conditions under which I saw it in the theater.

    And I always wondered what “Terry Gilliam Presents” actually meant. Did he help DELICATESSEN find American distribution, or did he just allow the use of his name on the poster?

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