Set in an unnamed location in a not-too-distant dystopian future, society is in chaos with severe food shortages and starvation leading to social anarchy. Down on his luck former clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) answers a job advertisement in a local paper and finds himself living in a tenement full of strange characters, and ran by the domineering landlord Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfuss), a burly beast of a man who also runs the butchers shop that sits on the apartments ground floor. Tensions rise when Louison embarks on an unlikely courtship with Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the daughter of Clapet. Unbeknown to Louison, the tough times have reduced the inhabitants of his new home to cannibalism and, overseen by Clapet, he is being groomed as the latest victim to satisfy his neighbour's grisly appetite for human flesh.
If there's a better contemporary example of the sheer gulf of aesthetic difference between American and European cinema than Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's sublime 1991 feature Delicatessen, then I've yet to see it. This charming little movie crosses over so many boundaries, pays such scant regard to any traditional notions, and has such a simultaneously carefree yet painstakingly meticulous approach, that it is a film that needs to be experienced and not just seen. Much has been made almost to the point of cliché about Delicatessen's similarities to the work of surrealist auteur Terry Gilliam, but if anything this film takes his fantastical concepts to an even greater level. It encompasses so many influences from familiar genres yet combines them with a true originality and visual flair that transports the viewer to another land devoid of time, place or logic. It's a testament to the originality of Delicatessen that it transcends types to create a metaphorical smorgasbord of genres and influences without ever seeming disjointed or uneven. Even now, fifteen years after its release (and it's hard to believe it's been that long), its originality still resolutely defies pigeonholing. There's black comedy, traditional slapstick, horror, romance, fantasy, adventure, and even a bit of musical thrown seamlessly into the mix.
The plot is pretty basic to say the least, and the majority of the film takes places between the confined walls of the run-down apartment. But this is not a film to concern itself with the intricacies of subtle plot-work, or to instigate the movement of characters to a number of locales. Within the tenement, Jeunet and Caro have created their own fantastical world, and the movie's simple structure plays like a grim fairytale story from beginning to end. Visually the film is an absolute triumph, with vivid colour schemes, audacious set design, and memorable mise-en-scene. Some of the scenes are a real joy to watch in the simplest and purest sense. Playing less like a conventional film and more like a beautifully stitched series of vignettes, arbitrary scenes like the rhythm of a squeaking bed being turned into a musical choreographed number, stick in the memory long after the final credits have rolled.
Although the supporting characters are drawn largely in broad strokes this never really becomes an issue. The film is so beautifully constructed by cinematographer Darius Khondji that it's almost like observing a macabre surrealist painting. Many of the protagonists are caricatures, but they are so vividly quirky and eccentric that they light up the screen even in two-dimensional roles. Highlights include two residents who painstakingly construct musical boxes that make cow noises, a suicidal woman who lives to think up elaborate ways to kill herself, and a bizarre group of freedom fighters who dress in wetsuits and live in the sewers. The leading actors are unanimously superb as well. Dominique Pinon, a diminutive man with a distinctive face pitched somewhere between Mark E. Smith and a Spitting Image puppet, excels in the lead role. A fine example of as un-Hollywood an actor as you could find, Pinon breaths life and depth in his role as the former clown, and never has the doomed love of a man and his performing chimpanzee touched the heartstrings so readily. His innocent chemistry with love interest Marie-Laure Dougnac is great to watch, the highlight being the wonderfully choreographed date involving Dougnac's hapless attempts to pour cups of tea without her glasses, which is a masterwork of physical comedy and a joy to watch. Similarly, Jean-Claude Dreyfuss lights up the screen with a suitable maniacal turn as the bloodthirsty butcher, in what would no doubt have been a show-stealing performance had the film not been so consistently good throughout.
In an age when originality is often equated as risk, and more and more films are churned out sticking well within the safety net of established boundaries, to return to Delicatessen is an absolute hoot. Invigorating and innovative, this kind of movie is so removed from the norm that they only come around so often. Although the established wisdom on the film is that it's an acquired taste, I would struggle to think of somebody who values originality and invention not being enchanted by this superb piece of filmmaking. In an age of stale old premises dragged out to death, Delicatessen is a breath of fresh air.