Delicatessen (1991)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro

Language: French (English Subtitles)

“Nobody is entirely evil: it’s that circumstances that make them evil, or they don’t know they are doing evil” Louison (Dominique Pinon)


When I was about ten, I remember thinking that having seen Amélie (2001, Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet) was basically shorthand for being incredibly sophisticated and cultured. It was to ten year old me what wearing a black turtle neck and smoking Gauloises without actually living in Paris would become to a slightly more adolescent me. Essentially, very sexy and unattainable while also amusing, complex and smart. ANYWAY, eventually I did watch Amélie and I also watched A Very Long Engagement (2004, Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and also starring Audrey Tatou). I remember enjoying both greatly, despite the fact that nobody seemed to notice my radically growing sophistication and appeal in the immediate aftermath.

If you are wondering, I am now very sophisticated and, when I don a black turtleneck, I remind those who gaze upon me of nothing so much as a gorgeous hybrid of Andy Warhol and Grace Kelly. On my most serious days, my body has been known to spontaneously produce Gauloises cigarettes.

All this was in the back of my mind when I chose to watch Delicatessen. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet alongside Marc Caro, it predates Amélie by ten years. I lose my heart to it utterly in the first five minutes. The main idea is joyously nasty: In a dystopian world, a butcher, Clapet, hires odd-jobs men for a short time before carving them up to sell to the buildings other tenants. From the slow, sinful sharpening of the bright cleaver against the dirty butcher’s apron, I’m very much on board. 

For a start, Delicatessen makes brilliant use of one of Jeunet’s favourite tools: colouring. In Amélie the quirky imagination of the central character refracts across the screen in the perfect vividness of the bold colours. It’s part of what makes it so striking. There is similar focus on colouration in A Very Long Engagement but there it is warm sepia, like an antique photograph – or the bitter grey that infuses the scenes in the trenches. In Delicatessen, it is a delightfully greasy combination of green and brown tones that recur, reminding me of the sheen on old meat. It’s is deliciously dark and dank, which is entirely appropriate. There are scenes, though, where that dankness is switched out for something softer and sweeter. Hope in the sweaty darkness.

The ‘main’ story revolves around the growing romantic attraction between Louison (the latest handyman, flank steak-in-waiting and ex circus clown) and the Butcher’s daughter Julie. As Julie falls more and more in love with Louison she has to decide whether (and how) to warn him about her father’s unpleasant business. The glory of Delicatessen, however, lies in the side dishes as much as in the main course. Aurore’s attempt to rig increasingly elaborate traps to kill herself are tragically hilarious. The waterlogged basement dweller who keeps the floor underwater to provide himself with frogs and snails is repulsively brilliant. Then there’s the beautiful Mademoiselle Plusse and her affair with the butcher, the pair of Moo box (honestly no idea if those things have another name, as it stands it looks like some sort of hideous euphemism …) makers, and the pater familias whose desire for meat is strong enough that he allows Clapet to carve up the family granny. Not to mention the Troglodistes, a radical underground (literally) movement of vegetarians. Its packed with deliciously sinister or sweet or bonkers characters and they all weave and knot themselves around each-other like vicious crochet. I love all of them.

As an aside, I especially love Julie. I love her attempt to try and conduct a date with Louison sans glasses. I love that she buys two of everything because she is clumsy. I love that she looks not unlike a perfect love-child of Julia Sawalha and Christina Ricci. I really love her playing the cello. She is firm chinned and determined and talented and I adore her. Right, I’ll stop now.

Alongside all this, the photography is sublime. The director of photography, Darius Khondji, creates simply delicious visuals. There are shots of Julie’s descent into the subterranean world that bring to mind the final sequence of The Third Man (1949, Director: Carol Reed). There is also a charmingly theatrical sense of choreography that comes through particularly in certain scenes. For example, the creaking bedsprings of the butcher’s afternoon sex session becoming the metronome for the activities of the other tenants, from painting the ceiling to beating the carpet. It is a scene simultaneously sordid and endearing.

That’s the thing about Delicatessen – it manages to surprise you with its charm even as it makes you grimace. Makes you laugh even when it deals with the supposedly tragic. It is madcap and frantic in one place while perfectly measured and choreographed in another. Most of all, it is infused with glee. I ate every minute of it up with relish.

Stills Via FilmGrab.