In a (probably) post-apocalyptic future, ex-clown Louison answers an advert for a handyman and arrives, pushing his taxi, at the apartment building of delicatessen owner Monsieur Clapet. Clapet sells meat for the only currency worth having in this dystopian landscape – corn. Offered a job with room and board, Louison enters the surreal world of its cannibalistic inhabitants, unaware that he is their next intended meal. Setting about his ‘factor’ role he encounters Clapet’s myopic daughter, Julie, who falls for him as they respectively play cello and saw together. Through a combination of advice and drugging him, Julie protects him from the murderous activities of her father and the other inhabitants, who are slowly turning on each other in the quest for meat. In order to further protect Louison, Julie meets with the ‘underground’, a militant vegetarian resistance army known as the Troglodytes, and makes a deal with them to kidnap Louison in return for her father’s corn. After one of the inhabitant families is forced to give up their grandmother to Clapet for overdue rent, and another, Aurore Interligator, fails to commit suicide despite the inhabitant’s best efforts to persuade her through the ‘voices’ coming through the building’s pipework, the Troglodytes make their move. Their kidnapping raid coincides with Clapet’s and his friend The Postman’s attempt on Louison’s life, leading to Louison flooding the house to escape, and culminating in a dramatic (if even more surreal) rooftop battle with Clapet. Louison and Julie are left to make music together on the roof of the now peaceful and no-longer cannibalistic building.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s intricate black comedy Delicatessen is a film about rhythm. From the simple rhythm of chopping meat, through to the more complicated set pieces of rhythms finding their way through the house. More than that it is about the disruption to rhythm and the way that rhythm reasserts itself, weaving around the disruptive force to reinvent and re-establish in a new form. The greatest disruption is one that is never made clear to the spectator, though is hinted at through the dialogue and through the very dissolute state of the gothic location. There has been some great event that has brought society to a state where condoms are repaired, money is defunct, water pours through the roof of the building, and postmen carry guns for defence. There is reference to ‘the rationing’ and the landscape is permanently shrouded in an all-encompassing fog, veiling the sky and preventing the crops from growing. Whilst it is clearly set in a post-apocalyptic future there is a sense that it is rooted in the aftermath of the Second World War, and as such is an examination of the collapse of morality in the face of morality’s ineffectuality in countering the brutalist logic of national capitulation with fascism. Oppression is re-versioned as cannibalism and the sense of community is overwhelmed by self preservation and self-interest, amplified through the bizarre rationalisations of the characters and the resulting elaborate and stylised actions arising from them. Jeunet himself characterised this ‘central obsession’ of the film as one of ‘self-sustenance and preservation from death’ (Rowlands 2009: 97) and yet in its highly stylised form it becomes almost fetishistic and emblematic of how privation dehumanises even those that remain superficially civilised.
As such it shares an ultra-realist, surrealist heritage with Georges Franju (Le Sang Des Bêtes, 1949) and Alain Resnais (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955), whilst Darius Khondji’s cinematography references the pre-war work of Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Jacques Prévert, and Marcel Carné. At the same time Khondji chose to shoot much of it using a wide-angle lens, lending the images an eerie proximity and distorting the characters’ relationships with the narrative space they inhabit. It is fundamentally absurdist in nature, perhaps almost Dadaist, with a delightfully shambolic surface structure that belies its intricacy and careful, deliberate construction. Two small boys (the Tapioca children) watch events unfold through a series of vignettes ‘some of which are hilarious, while others are deliberately grotesque’ 1 where the film’s subplots weave in and out of each other, and where the smallest of inconsequential moments (such as a ball of wool rolling down a staircase) suddenly become significant narrative devices.
However, Delicatessen is much more a character-driven film where, for much of the time, plot is superfluous. The house is populated by idiosyncratic tenants who all carry their own individual damage and their own particular baggage, but who also share very particular and damaged, cannibalistic relationships with each other. The house is a kingdom where there is an illusion of democracy but where it is in fact a fascist dictatorship with the butcher Monsieur Clapet at its head. Everything has become a commodity (Mademoiselle Plusse even sells herself to Clapet for meat – the obsession of everyone in the house), and even the caretakers are only there to be fattened up before being processed into food. It is into this world that the ex-circus clown Louison arrives himself already damaged by the fact that his circus partner (a chimpanzee called Livingstone) was killed and eaten. The actions of the characters are always presented as having consequences (not always the ones intended as best evidenced by the consequences arising from the repeatedly failed attempts of Madame Interligator’s attempts at suicide) and Jeunet and Caro focus on the minutiae of the cause and effect relationship.
The cause and effect relationship seems at times secondary to Jeunet and Caro’s use of set pieces and yet these set pieces also serve to further the cause and effect relationship. The key rhythmic sequence (one that was used as the trailer for the film) begins with the creaking bed springs as Mademoiselle Plusse pays Clapet with intercourse, and the camera follows the sound into the pipework that later becomes a vehicle for persuading Aurore Interligator that she is receiving messages from the dead. Through Herve Schneid’s fluid editing the rhythm permeates the building and the collection of characters respond to it in ways that spotlight their characters. Everything is moving in relation to the rhythm and the camerawork too reflects this through constantly moving, deploying small movements through to sweeping crane and dolly shots.
In a purely comic sequence, Louison and Mademoiselle Plusse bounce gently on her bed in order for him to locate the squeaking spring and repair it. There is an old film playing on the TV in the apartment and to the strains of a 1930s tune, ‘Dreams of Old Hawaii’ the pair perform a synchronised piece of visual comedy that is reminiscent of the choreographed routines of Laurel and Hardy. The simplicity and beauty of this scene is amplified by the way in which the rhythm of the bedspring squeak is matched to the rhythm of the music, and by the seriousness and focus of the characters. This is later followed by the pair (again) performing the ‘Tika Tika Walk’ where Louison is demonstrating a routine he used to perform with his chimpanzee Livingstone and Mademoiselle Plusse joins in. A highly stylised, rhythmic set piece is observed by Julie Clapet and prompts her further into Louison’s arms (though a recognition of her own jealousy) and propels the plot forward.
Transgression is at the heart of Delicatessen, and whilst transgression itself is transformative, Jeunet and Caro present it very much as carnivalesque.2 Their landscape is one of disruption and one in which their characters are responding by abandoning themselves to the carnival, where social mores, moral codes, and even laws are sacrificed to misrule. The apartment building becomes a microcosm of the wider dysfunctional society, and what was once normal behaviour is reformed so that it is formerly transgressive behaviour that becomes normalised. The daily activities of the characters tend towards the bizarre: Marcel Tapioca blows up condoms in order to test his repairs on them; the Kube brothers are locked into an inefficient production line making toys that it would seem will never see a market; and in the basement a man lives in such appallingly wet conditions that he is turning himself into a frog. Inside the building it is normal to urge inhabitants towards suicide, normal to lure the elderly to their death, normal to offer a stranger a job with the sole purpose of slaughtering him for meat. Norms are reversed and these reversed norms are dressed in the trappings of the original, a transgression that is at the heart of carnival where nothing is what it seems. As the film moves towards its climax, and Louison and Julie Clapet are chased to the top of the house where he floods a bathroom in order to escape his pursuers, the carnivalesque also climaxes. The pursuers are swept away by a tidal wave inside a house; Louison is left hanging from a lavatory seat when the bathroom floor collapses with the weight of the water; and Louison fights a battle with Clapet using a television aerial as a weapon. Nothing is what it seems, the world is inverted and the surreal dominates.
Louison himself in not immune to the transformative effect of the carnival, yet his position as ex-circus clown gives him an almost privileged role within the piece. His arrival is accompanied by his having to pay for the taxi (that he has pushed to the building) with his shoes, and as the film progresses he slowly divests himself of more and more of the trappings of a ‘normalised’ world, taking off his braces to help him decorate a ceiling, and removing his clothes in the bathroom sequence in order to prevent water escaping. Louison is the ‘hero’ of the film and needs to be transformed in order to become so. In many primitive societies (and in the rituals of most modern societies) transformative rites are the method of making the ‘normal’ human superhuman, and Louison’s victory over Clapet may be attributed to his process of transformation (one which may even include the potions of Julie Clapet as a transformative mechanism).
The transformative carnival is wrapped in a rhythmic soundtrack that is at times hypnotic and which certainly offers a backdrop to the action and which could be seen as creating a ‘bubble’ of sound within which the film’s story is played out. Sound is heightened (from the croaking frogs, and the running water, to the squeaking of the bed springs) and as such takes on a supra-real quality. The diegetic music played by Louison and Julie Clapet (on the saw and cello respectively) simply adds to this enclosed (and enclosing) soundscape, with an almost hallucinatory effect. It is therefore fitting that when the ‘bubble’ rather literally bursts with the roaring deluge and the screams of the inhabitants, and the subsequent rooftop fight sequence between Louison and Clapet in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, the film is brought to a conclusion with a restored norm through Louison and Julie Clapet making music together on the roof of the building in a fog-free daylight, perhaps offering a sense of hope, a sense that the madness of the carnival has purged the oppression that gripped the diegetic world.
Once again rhythm is the focus. Not the frantic, frenetic, harsh rhythms that dominate from the outset with the clanging rhythms of the refuse collectors, but rather a gentle, almost pastoral rhythm that becomes emblematic of a rebirth, a re-flowering, and of a new hope. The carnival is over and its king and queen have been crowned in order to restore order to the world and to bring blessings on the crops (in this case perhaps to work with the Troglodytes in using the proceeds of Clapet’s profiteering to reseed the world). It is a restorative rhythm that leaves Delicatessen as a symbol of hope – a dark, surreal, hilarious, and cinematically beautiful symbol of hope.
1. Emanuel Levy, Cinema 24/7 Film Reviews, ‘Delicatessen’. Available at www.emanuellevy. com/review/delicatessen-1991-/ (accessed: 21 November 2012).
2. The concept of the use of carnivalesque in Delicatessen is explored at some length in Ester Rowlands work (see below).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Constellation/UGC/Hachette Premiere. Producer: Claudie Ossard. Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Screenwriter: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro and Gilles Adrien. Cinematographer: Darius Khondji. Editor: Herve Schneid. Music: Carlos D’Alessio. Cast: Dominique Pinon (Louison), MarieLaure Dougnac (Julie Clapet), Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Clapet), Karin Viard (Mademoiselle Plusse), Rufus (Robert Kube), Jacques Mathou (Roger Kube), Ticky Holgado (Marcel Tapioca), Anne-Marie Pisani (Madame Tapioca), Edith Ker (Grandmother), Sylvie Languna (Aurore Interligator), Jean-François Perrier (Georges Interligator), Chick Ortega (Postman), Howard Vernon (Frog Man), Marc Caro (Fox).]
Guy Austin, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996.
Anne Bower, Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, London, Routledge, 2004.
Elizabeth Ezra, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Contemporary Film Directors), Chicago, University of Illinois, 2008.
Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, London, Routledge, 2005.
Remi Lanzoni, French Cinema: From its Beginnings to the Present, London, Continuum Books, 2004.
Ester Rowlands, Cinematic Portraits of Evil, Christian De Chalonge’s Docteur Petiot and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, New York, Cambria Press, 2009.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.