CHRIS: Delicatessen (Caro and Jeunet, France, 1991)

Derelict buildings, apparently blitzed by unknown forces, appear in the frame, suffused with a golden glow. The camera is drawn to an illuminated shop front. It keeps going, allowing the audience through the door of the Delicatessen. There is the menacing sound of rasping metal on metal as the camera passes over the empty shelves, until it reaches the gleaming blade of the butcher’s cleaver. It keeps going through the pipes, exploring the tenement building until it settles on a wide-eyed, nervous-looking man as he tapes newspaper to his body. He creeps outside. Its clear that he is attempting to escape the building, we see his beady eyes peering from a dustbin, waiting for it to be collected and taken away. Next, the dustbin lid is removed, the camera looks up for a moment, he was expecting freedom, instead it’s the butcher, who brings his cleaver down on his head.

A stunningly audacious opening to a vividly imaginative debut by Caro and Jenet, who went on to produce THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) and the international smash hit AMELIE (2001). In this film Clapet, the butcher, places adverts in the newspaper HARD TIMES to attract tenants to turn into his ‘special meat’ in a world where food acts as currency. The charming innocent Louisan (Dominique Pinon), a clown in mourning for his monkey-partner, becomes attached to the butcher’s daughter, Julie, who wants to save her new friend from his certain fate. With the help from the vegetarian freedom fighters who operate in the sewers, the so-called Troglodistes, they plan an elaborate escape which involves flooding the building.

The French were ahead of the curve when anticipating the 90s appetite for high-concept independent films. DIVA (1981) and BETTY BLUE (1986) were already student favourites and DELICATESSEN is an easy-on-the-brain, ready-made cult classic. The two directors were animators before they were directors, like their inspiration and executive-mentor, Terry Gilliam, so this film is a wonderfully constructed daisy-chain of set-pieces that are intricately constructed. The most famous scene is probably the one that was used for the trailer: the butcher’s creaking bed becomes a metronome, setting the tempo for the whole building as his sexual rhythm becomes more and more energetic, until it reaches a climax of cello strings snapping, braces snap and a bicycle tyre pops. However there are many other wonderfully eccentric scenes and characters, such as the men who make moo-boxes so they can be nostalgic for cattle and the woman who’s complicated suicide attempts are constantly interrupted.

In my movie confessions, I admitted to never watching the vast numbers of VHS tapes that I have, I have made an exception by including this on the list as I only have it on tape. It is one of those presentation gift boxes that don’t fit anywhere in the house, so turns up in unlikely places. I think it came with a pig pin-badge as a complementary gift for an EMPIRE magazine subscription. The badge has long gone, probably down the back of the settee, but my affection for this film remains as strong.

2 responses to “CHRIS: Delicatessen (Caro and Jeunet, France, 1991)

  1. Pingback: DOM: The Red Balloon (Lamorisse, France, 1955) « Dirk Malcolm's World of Film·

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