A second review requested by Vianney B, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There is a minor contradiction secreted away in the production history of Delicatessen. The 1991 film exists mostly so that Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro could prove they had what it took to write and direct a feature, and thereby secure financing for the screenplay they really wanted to make, The City of Lost Children. And that's exactly what they did, using Delicatessen's impressive critical, commercial, and awards success to leap into making the far more ambitious, higher-budget movie, with Jeunet continuing on as a solo director to keep it up, sometimes having more resources and sometimes fewer, but never having to return to such a low-scale production as his feature debut. And yet for all this, I'm not sure that any of the films that Delicatessen's success enabled are actually as wholly satisfying on their own terms. It really is the perfect version of itself, barring a few errant shots or cuts here and there. Nor I do not think that the lack of resources is entirely coincidental. There are the films like AmΓ©lie that get made when a filmmaker has the ability to run wild and indulge himself, and while that can be exhilarating, just as easily it can be exhausting and annoyingly solipsistic. Delicatessen is a perfect demonstration of the idea that great art needs some constraints: everything Jeunet and Caro did in the film, they did deliberately and with focused intent, and the resultant film is just way the hell tighter than anything else the filmmaking team, or Jeunet solus, have ever put their names to.

Generally speaking, Delicatessen is described as "post-apocalyptic", which I think is a little too cut-and-dry. From a production design standpoint - and everything in the film, up to and especially including the acting, needs to be understood from a production design standpoint (which was, for the record, provided by Caro himself) - the world presented in the film is a polyglot of elements from mid-20th Century France and America, with most of the props having the vague sense of '60s home goods invested with untold years of decay and corruption (this is a perfect example of the "restraints create art" ethos: many of the objects seen in the film were scavenged on account of the small art direction budget). The sense that results isn't that we're watching some hideous future, but rather a nightmarish alternate version of the recent past, where everything went terribly wrong. More than anything, Delicatessen feels like it takes place just across the Channel from the bureaucratic hellhole England of Terry Gilliam's Brazil a 1985 release set pointedly "somewhere in the 20th Century".

Which makes sense, given that Gilliam's work was a state influence on Jeunet and Caro, and Brazil looms particularly large over their body of work: beyond Delicatessen, both The City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection (Jeunet's third feature, and first without Caro co-directing) are fairly obvious in their borrowings from Brazil, though neither goes so far with it. Delicatessen doesn't just share aspects of its design mentality with Gilliam's film, it shares a very distinctive strategy for cinematography, with wide-angle lenses creating a sense of bug-eyed closeness that manages to avoid the edge distortion typical of wide angles, while exploiting their tendency to make objects in the center of the frame uncannily, uncomfortably present. It's one of the two most obvious ways that the film visually puts across a feeling of thoroughly unnerving otherness, the other being its tightly constrained color palette - this is an outstandingly yellow movie, introducing its central location emerging from a thick yellow fog like the ruins of a medieval abbey, and never letting us forget about it through all of the shots of locations that appear to be permanently stained in ochre soot. It's overwhelming and also subtle, but also cunning in its way: the payoff to all that yellow is the film's solitary use of blue (yellow's opposite in the RGB color system) is all the way in its final scene, when it is specifically used to counterbalance the diseased feeling of the whole movie up to that point. Among the film's other points of interest, Delicatessen was the first film of major lasting significance shot by Darius Khondji, and it's very much in line with his later triumphs: tightly constrained in color, marked with a certain filthy texture to the stock, and instantly effective at creating a very specific atmosphere.

So anyway, all of that visual presence is in service to something, after all, and here's what that is: wherever and whenever we are, there is a solitary building on the outskirts of what used to be civilsation. On the bottom floor of this building is a delicatessen, run by by a rubbery, fat butcher named Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus); he's also the landlord for the apartments which occupy all of the upper levels, all of them populated by a visually grotesque menagerie of idiosyncratic characters: such as Marcel Tapioca (Ticky Holgado) and his wife (Anne-Marie Pisani), grubby impoverish sorts; the Interligators, Aurore (Silvie Laguna) and Georges (Jean-François Perrier), she dressed like a '50s schoolchild's idea of a society lady and plagued by a voice that only she hears, urging her to commit suicide; the nameless man (Howard Vernon) who lives in a watery dungeon full of snails and frogs, looking a bit slimy and frog-eyed himself; and Clapet's own estranged daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), a birdlike young woman with a thin face and sharp eyes. We learn pretty damn quickly that this building houses some kind of horrible secret, given that the opening scene features Clapet laughing broadly as he plunges a cleaver into the skull of a terrified man (Pascal Benezech) hiding in a garbage can; it's no real surprise that the denizens of the building are all in on a conspiracy to entice drifters with the promise of a job, and then murder them for their meat, distributed evenly among all residents. It's all part of the world of absolute social collapse and near-total privation that the film sketches out; cannibalism, it's implied, is the only way to get any meat in this place.

The plot, such as it is, begins when ex-clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) takes up Clapet's job posting, and turns out to be a skilled enough hand that the butcher is reluctant to kill him right away. Worse still, Julie takes pity on Louison, and starts feeding him a powerful soporific tea to keep him asleep and safely in bed at the times that Clapet waits in the stairwell to kill whoever ends up crossing his path. Naturally enough, Julie and Louison fall in love, because as you can no doubt tell from everything I've written so far, Delicatessen is first and foremost a romantic comedy. That's not me being even a tiny bit sarcastic: after the florid design of the thing, which I broadly use to include the peculiar timbre of the cinematography and the physical distortions of the actors, the most notable thing about Delicatessen is its indefinite use of genre. I could not, if you forced me to, state with absolute confidence if this is mostly a horror film that happens to be so quirky and funny that it's not even a tiny bit scary, or if it's mostly a comedy that invests so much in violent death and a despairing culture in the midst of collapse that it becomes horrifying. What I can do is to approvingly note of the fact that as it moves towards the end, it abandons either to become a live-action Tex Avery cartoon: the nerve-wracking physical anarchy and use of slapstick as a murder weapon is entirely in the spirit of a Screwy Squirrel short, and the film even gets away with the old "bathroom fills up with water until somebody opens the door" bit at the end, having spent most of its 99 minutes building exactly the kind of demented anything-goes universe where that feels like a perfectly reasonable thing to occur, in between the attack by separatist vegetarians who live in the sewers and the Rube Goldberg suicide machines.

Whatever mode it's occupying, what dominates Delicatessen is shocking: this is as dewy-eyed and sweet in its outlook as anything in AmΓ©lie. Even while indicting them all as willing cannibals, Jeunet and Caro and co-writer Gilles Adrien portray the residents of the apartment with an essential affection and whimsy, using a playful sequence early on (the residents all creating musical interludes to the accompaniment of Clapet having sex with a certain Mademoiselle Plusse (Karin Viard) on squeaky bedsprings) to set up the idea that the apartment is a living organism, an ecosystem in which every emotionally aberrant figure within has their key and necessary role in the proper functioning of the whole. Given how frankly evil they are, and how joyfully the starts knocking them off, it's a bit surprising and pleasant how much Delicatessen openly loves its cast.

Most of all it loves Louison and Julie, who are the aspect of this film that looks forward the most clearly to Jeunet's solo projects: childlike innocents playing at a beatified, sexless version of romance, set against things like the circus and tea sets to accentuate just how much they're too lighthearted for this corrosive place and this corrosive world. It is a bent, weird, ugly, and menacing film in so many ways, but it is entirely driven by the sweet charms of its central pair; in turn, the saccharine sentimentality of that plot (that thing which ruined AmΓ©lie for those - I am not one, by any stretch - who consider it to be ruined) is counterbalanced by the savage nastiness of the setting and plot. It's a perfect balance, and while there's the odd moment here or there where the directors fluff the timing of scenes or repeat concepts once too often, Delicatessen is something close to a miracle of style and tone and narrative all slashing at each other from odd angles to produce a flawlessly unified whole. Lord knows that this isn't for everybody, but if we take the idea of a romantic comedy set in the ruins of a dead society and dressed up with cannibal horror seriously at all, it's hard to see how it could turn out better than this.