Thursday, May 20, 2010

Delicatessen (1991)

The Movie: In a disturbing near future where food is incredibly rare, Luison (Dominique Pinon of City of Lost Children), a former circus performer, comes to a boarding house looking for work. Unfortunately for him, the boarding house is a sinister place; inhabited by eccentric characters and presided over by the butcher Clapet (longtime French movie veteran Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who hires help for the purpose of serving them up as food. Unaware of the trap he has wondered into, Luison takes a job as the building’s handyman and makes himself at home.

An eccentric and flamboyant individual himself, Luison swiftly makes impressions. Whether it’s putting on an impromptu show for the two boys watching him work, or gallantly saving mailed packages belonging to Clapet’s daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) from thieving fellow tenants, the inhabitants talk about Luison as more than just their future dinner. In fact, that gallant act leads to a growing romance between him and Julie.

Ah yes, Julie. She has always hated her father’s work, and has fallen hard for Luison. Julie is willing to do anything to save him; even if it means making a deal with the Troglodistes, a band of vegetarian terrorists. Of course, on the scheduled night of the rescue, nothing goes according to anybody’s plans….

The Review: Delicatessen is a movie unlike any I have ever seen before or since. It is dark, hilarious, poignant, thoughtful at times, surrealistic, bizarre, and extremely paradoxical. It is also a lot of fun. Probably the strangest part of this movie is how it reconciles the subject matter with the tone. Delicatessen deals with such subjects as murder, cannibalism, suicide and the end of civilization as we know it; yet it never ceases to be a lighthearted, good-natured and upbeat film. Make of that what you will; I’ve seen it several times now and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

Probably the best place to start would be setting itself. Most of the action takes place at the boarding house. There are a few glimpses of the outside world; Louison comes in from outside, as does the psychotic postal worker (Chick Ortega) who desperately wants to be Julie’s boyfriend. Also, when Julie goes to deal with the Troglodistes she seeks them out in the sewers where they live. However, all the real action takes place in the boarding house; to the point where the boarding house becomes a microcosm in and of itself. Not that we need more than these glimpses of the outside world; all of the important issues are playing out right in front of our eyes. We don’t miss anything of what the future looks like.

And what a grim future it is. Food is incredibly scarce; to the point where cannibalism is fairly commonplace. Clapet often waxes on how much better “in here” is than “out there” because “in here we have a system.” A throwaway line shows the true extent of the problems; the impossible has happened and rats have been hunted to extinction.

And yet, the really cruel irony is in the currency used; apparently “money” in this world is measures of things like corn, beans and lentils. A scene where Clapet is counting his money is especially sad; all around him is probably enough food to feed his tenants for at least a year without resorting to cannibalism, but these items are considered more valuable as something to be hoarded. This is reflected when Clepet reveals what is probably the true reason for why the Troglodistes are hated by this society; “I hear the bastards actually eat money.”

The inhabitants of the boarding house are really well done; even the most minor of the characters presented could warrant a full movie in and of his or herself. There is an unnamed man (longtime movie, particularly Jess Franco movies, veteran Howard Vernon) who keeps his basement apartment flooded to raise his pet frogs and the snails he uses for food. There are the richest tenants, Georges (Jean-Francois Perrier) and Aurore (Silvia Laguna) Interligator; Aurore is the talk of the building because she hears voices and is always trying to kill herself in Rube Goldbergian ways that always (except for the last one) end anticlimactically. The Kube brothers, Roger (Jacques Mathou) and Robert (Rufus, the IMDB doesn’t give another name) make things more difficult for her; Robert because he is in love with Aurore, Roger because, well, he has his own interest in her situation.

And I haven’t even mentioned the family whose husband has to hand over his mother-in-law to pay rent; or Plusse (Karin Viard), the pretty young woman who pays her rent in “services,” and who in all is a fairly enigmatic character. I still don’t think I’ve mentioned all of them. In short, it’s a very large and fascinating cast, with some extremely fascinating characters. However, the real meat of the movie (pardon the pun) revolves around the triangle made by Julie, Louison, and Clapet. Specifically, the inevitable clash between the two men’s world views.

Julie is probably the sanest person in the movie. She is intelligent, strong-willed, and utterly detests what her father does. She also plays the cello. However, unlike any of the other characters, she lacks any kind of major eccentricity or madness. The closest she comes to it is when she invites Louison over to her apartment for the first time; and tries to go through the date without her glasses, even though it’s blatantly obvious she can’t see. In short, she pretty much sticks out because she’s the only sane individual in a world full of madmen. Dougnac does a good job with the part, though; and the character works.

Dreyfus is wonderful as the villainous Clapet. He is in turn funny, scary, psychotic and even a little sympathetic. After watching Dreyfus in this film I really want to see some of his other movies. Not only can the man act, but he has incredible talent for physical humor as well. Just watch some of his facial expressions and you will see what I mean.

The character of Clapet is actually fairly complex, and ultimately a tragic one. It is true that Clapet is vicious, greedy and brutal. However, the movie establishes that there are reasons for that; and that he does have at least one redeeming quality. Said quality is that despite their differences, he truly does love his daughter. Even at the climax where he is at his most psychotic and leading a mob against Louison; he takes time to threaten dire consequences if anyone should harm Julie.

What is truly tragic about Clapet is the motivation behind his actions. From very early in the movie, it is made clear that he is convinced that the world is doomed. There is no hope, so therefore there is nothing to do but hold on for as long as possible; never mind that actions like his are what brought civilization to its sorry state, and threaten to speed up the rest of its fall over the edge. He is sorry that his actions have brought the divide between him and his daughter; he even knows his actions are wrong. However, Clapet has long ago decided that morals are a luxury that he cannot afford.

Louison is the polar opposite of Clapet. He is extremely quirky, for starters; but in a very charming and endearing way. The scene that best exemplifies this is when Louison, upon finding that Julie plays the cello, declares that he plays an instrument too and runs off to get it. It turns out to be a musical saw; which looks as goofy as all hell, but produces some of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds I have ever heard. The rest of his interactions with others play out in the same vein; at the drop of a hat Louison will pull out one of his bizarre circus stunts or tools. And, whether his motive is to entertain or to solve a problem; however goofy his methods might look, they always fulfill the end that he intends them to.

Behind all this is Louison’s attitude, for which I greatly envy the character. Louison has seen, firsthand, the very worst that humanity has to offer; yet he still believes that people are basically good. Unlike Clapet, Louison believes that morals are not only important, but essential. However, he never talks about them unless someone else brings the subject up. Instead, Louison simply lives his life, often unthinkingly, as if he lived in the world as it should be; not the one people like Clapet would have you believe it to be. It is this attitude that allows him to come out victorious in the end.

The final thing to point out is Delicatessen’s general atmosphere; probably it’s most important element. Half the movie looks like something Terry Gilliam would come up with; the other half like something that would make even him stare in awe and wonder. Somehow, the music and the setting make me think simultaneously of a grim post-apocalyptic wasteland; and of the romantic setting we all think of when we think of Paris.

The whole movie is one long series of surreal and absurd happenings from the beginning, where we see Louison’s predecessor try, unsuccessfully, to disguise himself as garbage and sneak out in the trashcan; to the climax, where our hero is trying to maintain his balance on a toilet in a bathroom where the floor has collapsed. Eccentric characters do crazy things in an increasingly mad world to the point where Wonderland seems like a sane, rational place by comparison. And yet, the plot is driven by such an enthusiastic and infectious energy that you don’t start scratching your head until the credits begin to roll.

Delicatessen is a black comedy, but the humor is very different from most black comedies. Instead of the cynical chuckle of someone who is unable to do anything else but laugh; Delicatessen has the genuinely amused guffaw of somebody who recognizes that no matter how bad the events are, they are only temporary, and so can appreciate how absurd it all is. Ever since I bought my own copy, this has made my list of feel-good movies that I watch when I’m in need of an emotional boost. Definitely a classic.

No comments:

Post a Comment