Set in an unknown post/apocalyptic era somewhere in France (presumably – they all speak French!), this 1991 film tracks the lives of the butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), and a bevy of tenants who inhabit the rooms above his delicatessen. Clapet has a daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), who is almost blind and a sensitive cello player type. The tenement is populated by a buxom young woman (Karin Viard) who is Clapet’s mistress, a pair of brothers whose occupation is to make widgets of unknown function out of wood, a thief/peddler, his mother-in-law, wife and their two kids, a man and his suicidal wife, and a creepy sort of basement dweller who breeds aquatic life! Perhaps inspired by Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the film is a foray into what desperate things human beings will do when their very survival is threatened. An odd-job man, Louison (Dominique Pinon), lands up at the delicatessen in response to an ad in the Hard Times newspaper, and is told by the butcher that he is not “muscular” enough for the job, but is reluctantly given a chance. Food is scarce and a barter system is in force. People pay for their meat with small bags of corn or beans, or in services rendered – often to the sound of creaking bedsprings that inspire a symphonic frenzy of activity in the tenement. (Warning – the following is hilarious but may have some inappropriate content for those not of age).
The new odd-job man turns out to be a retired circus clown, falls for the daughter, and has no clue what is ultimately in store for him at the delicatessen. In the meantime he takes on many odd jobs, including the one of fixing the ceiling of the tenement, and the wayward spring!
To save the clown, the daughter has to seek help from the underground (literally!) group called the “Troglodytes” – eaters of corn, vilified by the populace, and pursued by the police.
The setting is macabre and dystopic to an extreme. At its heart the film also has a sweet little romance between two most unlikely characters – a near blind girl (Dougnac) and the most comic-faced man in the movies (Pinon). Pinon is endearing, and completely unabashed in taking full advantage of his clownish looks. His description of the act he shared with Nelson (a chimp) and the subsequent loss of Nelson leaves a lump in your throat. Then there is a little primer on how to (or how NOT TO) attempt suicide that is full of brilliantly contrived situations and makes that gruesome business rip-roaringly funny. In the end this dark tale is cleverly told, exceedingly well acted. It delivers some insight into the human animal, and the level to which people will go when push comes to shove. It is also non-judgmental in portraying the culmination of meat eating in cannibalism, while also mocking the vegetarians as Troglodytes and extreme bumbling caricatures. Added to all this is idealism and rebellion, and the film defies genres, while blending many disparate themes into one madcap whole. It is a brilliant first effort from the Caro/Jeunet duo that followed this one up with the City of Lost Children. Jeunet then went on to do other films including the charming Amelie – Delicatessen provides us with an introduction to some of what went into making Amelie. The bathroom scene in Amelie was no doubt a revisit of the bedsprings scene in this earlier effort. And Pinon was a prominent character in the later film too. This dark comedy is worth a watch and will not disappoint.
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