Jean-Pierre Jeunet is famous, above all, for Amélie. To an extent, the rest of his work has been overshadowed by this one film. And it’s easy to see why – it was after all, a huge popular and critical success, won a bunch of Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), launched Audrey Tautou’s career, boosted Montmartre’s tourist industry and has been endlessly copied, pastiched and parodied to the point that it is part of the cultural landscape.
But prior to Amélie, Jeunet had already made some terrific movies (and Alien: Resurrection as well, but never mind). His first feature length movie was Delicatessen, co-written and directed by Marc Caro. The two had met some years previously and had worked together on a number of animations and shorts so a feature film was a natural progression. With Caro’s experience as an animator and illustrator, his main focus was on art direction and design – with the pair mentioning in interviews how Caro would storyboard every single shot in their movies to make sure everything was as they imagined, with Jeunet taking on the more standard directorial role.
The painstaking approach to the design is clear from the very first frame. Delicatessen is set in a post-apocalyptic world (though exactly what has happened is never explained). What is clear is that everyone is desperately hungry, and perhaps a little bit crazy. The Delicatessen of the title is run by a brutal butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) and sits on the ground floor of a crumbling apartment block – the inhabitants of which make up the characters of the movie.
Driven desperate for food, Delicatessen’s collection of freaks have taken to eating human flesh. In order to find victims, the butcher places an ad in the paper each week for a handyman for the apartments, offering free bed and board. However, the unsuspecting applicants find that after painting a few walls, they end up in the pot. One day, Louisson (Jeneut regular Dominique Pinon), an ex-circus clown turns up in response to the ad. His clowning days are over after his sidekick, a monkey named Livingstone was eaten by a mob. He is welcomed as the source of the next meal, but things get complex when the butcher’s daughter falls for him and hires a vegetarian underground movement to rescue him from her father’s clutches.
Delicatessen’s main storyline is just one of the movie’s darkly hilarious attractions however. There are various side-plots featuring characters from each apartment – from the angry old man who has turned his flat into a swamp and who snacks on the snails who share his home, to the woman who can hear voices telling her to come to the other side and who tries to do so by committing suicide in the most complex ways possible. Personal favourites are twin devil children who play malicious pranks on anyone foolish enough to be wandering in the hallways.
Delicatessen looks incredible – testament to the painstaking set-up work and the extraordinary imaginations of the co-creators. The plot is satisfying and the characters, while often grotesque, are also extremely human with their good sides and their (often huge) flaws.
Jeunet and Caro went on to make City of Lost Children, which is similarly surreal, funny and bleak. However, by the time Amélie came along, Jeunet was flying solo. Despite this, and perhaps surprisingly the design and attention to art direction detail remained a really strong feature of that film. The main thing that changed was that the darkness at the heart of the previous films was very much softened, replaced by a sweetness, which, as it turned out, was exceptionally popular.