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Before Jean-Pierre Jeunet was known as the director of Amélie, he was the first half of “Jeunet and Caro,” a promising duo of visually inventive filmmakers. Their nameplate partnership didn’t last beyond their second film, but what a collaboration it was.

Their first film was made almost fifteen years ago, and it has been unavailable on DVD (in this country) until this week.

Denizens

Style is king in Jeunet's Delicatessen
Style is king in Jeunet’s Delicatessen

The movie is Delicatessen, a black comedy about an isolated apartment complex with a butcher shop in the first floor. Residents are careful to pay their rent or they might disappear, after which the neighbors will eat well for a week. If everyone is paid up, the handyman disappears and the tenants take out an ad for the next handyman to fill the position, preferably one with a lot of meat on his bones.

Set in this bleak and hungry world is a love story between a clown and a wallflower. Dominique Pinon, whose distinctive face, wide lips, and small stature appear prominently in all four of Jeunet’s films, is the out-of-work clown who seeks the job at the apartment building. Marie-Laure Dougnac is perfectly cast as the petite, nearsighted, sweet girl who decides she likes the new guy. She hopes her father the butcher will spare him.

The story is little more than a collection of interactions between the apartment dwellers. One lonely old man keeps frogs and snails in his ever-moist flat. A seemingly well-to-do couple is not so solid after all; she dreams up Rube Goldberg Kevorkian machines while he remains oblivious to her pain. There are also delivery men, gangsters, a prostitute, a middle-aged couple, and of course the two young boys who take it all in. Underneath live the Troglodytes, a group of rubber-suited sewer dwellers who survive on dirty work and surface raids.

None of this says why Delicatessen is such a good movie, although it does suggest a certain whimsical style. It’s the way that whimsy is translated into golden-rich, 35mm photography that makes Delicatessen a milestone film.

Style is King

The style really must be seen to be appreciated. It’s a mix of antique and post-apocalyptic. The sets and photography suggest a warm, homey, lived-in world. Nothing is plastic; everything is wood, brass, steel, or cloth. Jeunet shoots with a wide-angle lens that gets very close to actors’ faces distorting them, giving them character and humor. The music that the characters play fits the decor: warm cello and retro-futurist musical saw. This is counterpointed by the movie music (the “extradiegetic” music), which is heavy, dark, and ominous.

Jeunet and Caro reused this style in City of Lost Children, and Jeunet took it with him when he made Alien: Resurrection and Amélie. Delicatessen has undoubtedly inspired lots of other style-heavy movies, too, like The Triplets of Belleville or The Fifth Element

The point is that, even if Delicatessen might not have been an instant classic when first came out (I might have balked at the silliness of the Troglodytes or the awkward mix of playfulness and cannibalism), it’s impossible, fifteen years later, to call it anything but a genuine classic and a landmark, milestone, groundbreaking film.

DVD Extras

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a good talker, and his audio commentary (in French) is interesting, informative, and briskly paced. He never falls into the trap of simply reminiscing or listing his likes and dislikes. Instead, he’ll explain how an effect was achieved or how he worked with the actors to get the proper response.

I could swear I’ve heard Jeunet speak English, perhaps on the Amélie commentary. It’s a little strange having to read the subtitles for the audio commentary, especially when dialogue from the film is allowed to mingle. But it’s a minor distraction, and if it helped Jeunet stay on-topic, then I’m all for it.

The next-best feature is, surprisingly, the trailers and teasers from 15 years ago. Even having just watched the film, I laughed out loud at the trailers and felt like I wanted to watch the movie.

Next up is a narration-less documentary called Fine Cooked Meats: a Nod to Delicatessen. It’s a behind-the-scenes documentary, and if you’ve just seen the movie, you’ll probably appreciate seeing the techniques used to capture the footage. You may also be amazed at how different specially-processed 35mm film can look from video.

The least interesting feature comes from the archives of Jeunet. There are clips from screen tests and location-scouting footage that Jeunet has saved all these years. They seem to be included if only to back up what Jeunet says on the audio commentary, and in that role, they serve their purpose. But the footage itself isn’t particularly interesting, unless you’re a huge fan.