Delicatessen was one of the first films that showed me French cinema had more to offer than just conversation-based dramas and mediocre comedies. It also marked the start of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's career, generously assisted by Marc Caro (who received directing credits for his work on Delicatessen). It's one of the oldest live-action films in my list of absolute favorites, so I was quite interested to see how well the film had held up after all those years.
Jeunet and Caro are a unique duo. The combination of Jeunet's magical touches and Caro's darker visions make for a film that's both funny and oddly creepy at the same time. While Delicatessen is a comedy at heart, the setting is a dirty, mean micro-universe in total disarray. There is no room for beauty here, yet within that grim, dirty place Jeunet dredges up a lot of melancholy and wonder. It's this constant tension between two very different worlds that turns Delicatessen into such a great film.
We're looking at a dystopian future. Food is scarce, meat is a rarity and people pay each other with corn. People get by, but times are tough. Except for a little commune centered around a butchery. The butcher is rich, and the people living in his neighborhood are doing relatively well for themselves. Something is off though, but as everyone seems to be in on the secret no outsider is going to find out what is happening in the butchery.
Until Louison shows up on the doorstep of the butchery. He is looking for a place to live and since the previous caretaker mysteriously disappeared the job is his. Louison quickly adapts to his new surroundings, befriending the daughter of the butcher after a fateful encounter with a sleazy mailman. The two are clearly enjoying each other's company, but the butcher isn't too happy with the blossoming relationship between the two and devises a plan to get rid of Louison.
For a film almost 25 years old, Delicatessen still looks stunning to this very day. The sepia filter helps, but Darius Khondji's skills go beyond applying a mere filter. The camera work is less than subtle, featuring plenty of weird camera angles and unique framing, the lighting is exquisite and the settings are fun and detailed (though I assume that's mostly Caro's doing). The original copy is quite grainy and foggy though, so upgrading to an HD version might make for a slightly cleaner experience.
The music on the soundtrack has a classic French vibe, mimicking old French chansons for an extra quirky effect. It's not exactly up to Amélie standards, it's definitely not quite as memorable, but as a companion to the visuals it makes for a very warm, charming, and endearing whole. A good soundtrack, even though individual tracks don't really linger as long as they should.
As for the actors, Dominique Pinon is perfect for the role of Louison. He has a very expressive face and posture, granting his character an almost cartoon-like appearance. The rest of the actors are equally well-cast, Jean-Claude Dreyfus in particular impresses as the mean-spirited butcher. Those with a sharp eye may also be able to spot Marc Caro in a tiny cameo (he's one of the "Troglodytes" - an underground counteraction group that pops up during the final act of the film).
Like most of Jeunet's films, Delicatessen is at its best when it's happily ignoring the main plot line. The inhabitants of the butcher's house are a strange and quirky bunch that get up to all kinds of mischief. The toy makers are weird, there's one woman constantly trying to kill herself and the guy pretending to be a frog ... well, there's really no sane explanation for that. The director duo doesn't mind diverging a little to revel in the bizarre world they created, which may not be too pleasing for people who prefer a rigid plot or who don't like Caro and Jeunet's strange sense of humor, but in the end, it's what sets Delicatessen truly apart from the rest.
I clearly prefer this film over Amélie, if only for the darker and freakier setting. Caro and Jeunet make an excellent team and while Jeunet has the skills to put out a great film by himself, Caro's magic touch is dearly missed in his later work. Delicatessen won't be for everyone, it's a bit too bizarre for that, but if you like your film a tad different then it's more than a solid recommendation. From a film nearing its 25th birthday, it's still one hell of a ride.