Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: Delicatessen

Last night I watched Delicatessen, the next film on the three lists of little-known cinematic gems I'm going through. (For more on this topic, see my initial post on the subject, or use the "Movies I'm Watching" tab to the right.)

This one certainly fits the bill. I'd never heard of it, but it's wonderful. I'm virtually at a loss to describe it (I'll think of something, no doubt), so let me start with the conclusion: This is strange and wonderful and highly recommended. It's one of those films that seems both perfect and to make no sense at the same time--the sort of film that you keep going through over and over in your head for a long time after seeing it. It's a high-speed drive down the Autoroute strapped into a car that seems on the verge of losing control. There's nothing to do but sit back, watch the scenery whizzing past and hope to survive.

Delicatessen (French; 1991; Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Starring Pascal Benezech, Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and Karin Viard) is like an underground comic come alive. The entire film plays out in, on, or immediately around a single crumbling building in a city of the future (Paris?) after some cataclysm has reduced the world mostly to rubble--or in the underground sewer tunnels controlled by what might be described as a group of vegetarian commandos. Food is scarce. People above ground do whatever they can to feed themselves. People are quietly hunted for meat like rats.

But there is some semblance of society still functioning. There are taxis. There is a mailman who delivers mail. There are newspapers. The butcher, owner of the delicatessen at street level in the building, keeps an ad running that seeks a handyman to help with chores. The people that answer these ads keep disappearing....

The film starts with the arrival of the latest handyman, one Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former circus performer who proves more resourceful than the butcher bargains for. Delicatessen is a small war in progress and the viewer has a seat at the front lines--obscured as the view is by heavy mists and the frightening, unfamiliar rules of this post-apocalyptic world. A general sense of disorientation is heightened by effective use of montages and distorted dream sequences.

The sound of Delicatessen is wonderful. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie (and this is a comedy) involve orchestrated sound samples. Patching together the sounds of everyday actions to produce music is now a staple of TV advertising, but once it was a novel idea. I don't pretend to know who thought of it. I first heard something like this listening to Pink Floyd's 1973 Dark Side of the Moon--remember the opening of Money, where the cash register sounds "play" the introduction? Delicatessen uses this device to wonderful effect. Everyone in the building is subordinate to the Butcher and dependent on him for food. The point is hilariously driven home when the squeaking springs of the amorous Butcher's bed momentarily take over control of everything going on in the building; every sound begins to fall in with the gradually quickening rhythm of the Butcher's love-making. Later, handyman, Louison, looking for the noisy coil to oil is just as funny when he tests the springs of the squeaky bed with the Butcher's lover (she has asked him to silence the squeak--and he does).

To say too much would be to spoil the fun. (For the squeamish among you, there is very little blood, despite the gruesome premises behind the story.) Strange and wonderful and highly recommended.

[Update: I was just reading about the film and I see that the writer of the screenplay is normally a writer of comic books--which explains a lot.]

1 comment:

  1. Delicatessen is one of my very favorite films. I'm normally not a dark/noir/gruesome person, but it's so artfully done, that there's very little actual gore. It's mostly just a very eerie suspense. And the visuals are stunning. I love Jeunet.


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