When I rewatched Delicatessen a few weeks ago—for the first time since its release in 1991—I was struck by how fresh it was. I’d originally found the film clever, but a little too in love with its own cleverness to really work. Seeing this seriously demented exercise in deliberate bad taste anew, I now think it’s just about right. That may or may not be the result of years of exposure to Jeunet’s subsequent work—with or without Caro. There’s a freshness in this ramshackle tale of a society on the brink of starvation that’s been driven to cannibalism as a viable lifestyle, and it’s grounded in comedy that’s fully as grotesque and disturbing as it is bleakly funny.
The film is set in and around a grubby delicatessen, the upper floors of which comprise an apartment house that’s a kind of nightmarish low-rent cousin to the building in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). The very odd inhabitants of the building, having recently done a Sweeney Todd on their last handyman, are pleased to see the arrival of an out-of-work clown, Louison (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon). Granted, he’s not the most imposing physical specimen, but meat is meat, so the delicatessen owner (Jeunet semi-regular Jean-Claude Dreyfus) accepts the clown’s application as a handyman, with the aim of getting some work out of him before putting him on the menu. What no one has counted on is the owner’s daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), finding a soul mate in Louison and setting her sights on saving him from his fate. That’s really about all the plot there is, but the plot is only part of what makes the film work.
Equally important are the quirky side stories about the building’s denizens and Jeunet and Caro’s sense of both cinematic invention and history. The boys are certainly up on their 1932 movies, since they include homages to both Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight with its building-rhythms opening and Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse with its escape-from-certain-death by flooding a room. The delight, however, comes in the way that these deliberate evocations of earlier films are not recycled, but rather rethought into brand new set pieces. Both instances help to imbue the film with a weirdly dislocated sense of time where the future feels peculiarly old. There’s brilliance here—and a lot of downright sick fun.