Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Mark Caro's debut feature Delicatessen serves up a stew that seems to be made of a little of everything from one hundred years of screen comedy, seasoned with Grand Guignol. The story of post-apocalyptic cannibalism in a French apartment building, Delicatessen could be "M. Hulot's Nightmare." Jeunet & Caro evoke the silent comedies (though, like early talkies, their picture eagerly exploits sound effects) and German expressionism, as well as more recent "little man against the world" forebears like David Lynch's DIY Eraserhead and Terry Gilliam's Kafkaesque Brazil. Though it has the somewhat distracting exactingness of a high-end European commercial, Delicatessen is nothing if not impressive as a feat of movie-making and screen performance.
Dominique Pinon plays Louison, a clown who stumbles into grisly trouble when he takes a job working for a butcher named Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). Mysteriously, Clapet continues to operate his apartment building's ground-floor delicatessen, despite the fact that the post-apocalyptic France suffers from a desperate shortage of food (animals have all but gone extinct, while grain, now a rarity, has become currency). Clapet's secret, of course, is that he butchers hapless humans, keeping the building's tenants in meat in exchange for silent consent. But Louison isn't just another patsy. For starters, he's a hard worker, which makes him less readily dispensible than his predecessors. He also quickly wins the heart of Clapet's daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), who attempts to stave off Louison's iminent execution. He even tweaks Clapet's last heartstring with his innocent suggestion that "No one's entirely evil. It's circumstance."
The question of whether human nature is essentially bad or good is pretty much the only intellectual interest the picture musters —the answer, by the way, is "yes," although the protracted climax declares an optimistic, temporary winner in the battle of good and evil. The picture's pleasures instead reside in the fantastic production design by Caro and the cartoon-like animation of the cast, at times abetted by skewed perspectives and wide-angle close-ups (no surprise, then, that Jeunet & Caro started in animation). Pinon deftly embodies the good-hearted hero, the filmmakers' surrogate who answers life's terrors with joyful creativity, such as an impromptu bubble show for neighboring boys. Dreyfus' darkly villainous grotesque effectively counterpoints Louison's brightness (and Dougnac proves winningly subtle as Louison's love interest).
The film may not add up to more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty good. Jeunet & Caro whip up a series of Rube Goldbergian suicide-traps for one of the apartment dwellers, as well as two sequences orchestrating the rhythmic expressions of life in the apartment house (one of these became the film's highly effective trailer); something as simple as two people gently bouncing on the edge of a bed, testing its springs, becomes the focus of a sweetly amusing scene. It doesn't hurt that the filmmakers have cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en) at their disposal. Khondji, Jeunet & Caro would reteam on the even weirder The City of Lost Children before the directors permanently split during the development of Jeunet's Alien: Resurrection, leaving him to his own devices (including Amélie, A Very Long Engagement and the recent Micmacs). Delicatessen still stands as a reminder of a time when independent cinema experienced a surge of creativity and popularity.
As U.S. distributor of the StudioCanal Collection, Lionsgate delivers a terrific special edition for Delicatessen. I can say with confidence that Delicatessen has never looked better on home video (and probably never will) than it does in this hi-def presentation. The title has a history of looking grottier than it should, but this release dusts off the image and gives it the best possible clarity, given some inherent softness in the source. Though the film's washes of color are purposefully garish, they are vibrantly and accurately presented here, and detail and texture are strong, especially in close-up. Sound is likewise definitive, in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 that maximizes the source material with excellent clarity and fidelity.
Bonus features are as extensive as one could hope, with the noteable exception of the near-total absence of co-director Mark Caro (he's known to be media shy, so it's to be expected).
"Making Of: Fine Cooked Pork Meats" (13:30, SD) is an assemblage of set footage.
We also get the "Trailer" (2:08, SD) and "Teaser" (1:34, SD), as well as an in-depth audio commentary by co-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, presented in French with subtitles.
"Main Course Pieces" (1:05:28, HD) is thorough documentary exploring the film's inception, production, and reception. Interviewed are Jeunet, screenwriter Gilles Adrien, producer Claudie Ossard, Jeunet's friend and fellow director Jan Kounen, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Aline Bonetto, director of photography Darius Khondji, editor Hervé Schneid,film historian/professor Glenn Myrent, and film critics Philippe Rouyer, Lisa Nesselson, and Kuriko Sato.
"Jeunet's Archives" (8:43, SD) turns out to be video footage of cast auditions.
Mirroring the Criterion Collection, the StudioCanal Collection habitually includes insert booklets; the one with Delicatessen includes an essay by film critic and author Kim Newman.
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