We change focus to a glowing delicatessen shop front, and are led inside to the ominous shrieks of a butcher sharpening his knives, a grubby patched-up apron hanging off of one shoulder. The sounds echo in the building’s pipes to an upper floor where a wide-eyed man, heavy beads of sweat gathered across his face, is hurriedly wrapping himself in yellowed newspaper. As the knife sharpening quickens and an engine sounds in the distance, the man takes a breath, pulls a paper bag over his head and tiptoes down the building's staircase.
And so begins the opening scene of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's highly stylised and unmistakably French 1991 film Délicatessen, a post-apocalyptic surrealist black comedy. Replacement tenant Louison (Dominique Pinon), a saw-playing former clown in mourning for his chimpanzee sidekick, is the protagonist through whom we are introduced to a madcap ensemble of characters including a man who lives in a water-logged basement surrounded by frogs and snails, a woman whose wildly elaborate attempts to take her own life never quite succeed, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the cello-playing near-blind butcher's daughter, and the butcher himself (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who is the building's landlord and the owner of the titular delicatessen.
The building’s characters live in an unexplained and undated dystopia where food and resources are scarce, and as a result the butcher has resorted to an unorthodox means of sourcing meat to serve his hungry customers. Our only glimpse in to the outside world comes in the form of Les Trogolodistes, a bumbling and disorganized group of subterranean vegetarian rebels who, when given the chance, are more than happy to disrupt the butcher’s activities.
Black humour is found in the tenants’ blithe acceptance of their unusual diet. A concerned man asks his wife how long the previous tenant lasted; "a week” replies his wife, “but that's not including the broth". Amongst this madness, romance appears to blossom between the innocent yet determined Julie and newly arrived Louison. Convinced that she is prettier without glasses, Julie welcomes Louison in to her apartment virtually blind, having memorised the position of the teapot and teacups. Louison sits in the wrong seat and slapstick clumsiness ensues.
Fans of Amélie – the 2001 hit film, also directed by Jeunet – will recognise the same colour palette of saturated yellows, browns, and oranges, occasionally contrasted with dark greens and reds. The music also feels familiar – piano, accordion, harmonica – as does the use of quirky props to set a slightly otherworldly tone. However Délicatessen differs to Amélie in its darkness. Everything seems to be perma-covered in a layer of grime, sweat, and dust; the smog never quite clears and the damp never quite dries out. The neo-noir camerawork lends a sense of menace that is at a direct contrast to the warm and kind-hearted Amélie.
Perhaps the key to enjoying this wonderfully unique and strange film is to not question it too much – trying to make sense of it would certainly leave you at a loss. Instead simply allow yourself to be taken in by Jeunet and Caro's superbly bizarre art-house masterpiece.