You probably know him best for "Amelie" and "A Very Long Engagement," but Jean-Pierre Jeunet did an entirely different kind of comedy in "Delicatessen," a wicked black comedy that deals with... um, cannibalism. It's a twisted, dark story populated by the oddest characters that the writer could possibly have imagined -- and man, is it funny.
It's the postapocalyptic future, where food is so scarce that grain is used as money, and meat is completely gone. The setting is an apartment building run by a local butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who feeds his tenants in an unusual way: he hires assistants, then turns them into tomorrow's din-din. His newest assistant is the gentle vegetarian ex-clown Louison (Dominic Pinon).
But the butcher's plans get thrown for a loop when his cello-playing daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) falls for Stanley and (unsurprisingly) wants to save her love from a fate worse than entrees. So she contacts the vegetarian resistance, the Troglodytes, and tricks them into invading her father's house, on the night when he plans to slaughter Louison.
Okay, let's get this straight: cannibalism is not funny. But comedies about cannibalism CAN be very funny, if done well. And "Delicatessen" manages to be a funny comedy in the tradition of Terry Gilliam, with the warped direction, surreal direction and strange settings. What was later precious in "Amelie" is weirdly ominous here... not that that's a bad thing.
It's also a challenge to create such a dark, bleak setting and somehow inject offbeat comedy into it. For example, one sex scene is juxtaposed against various activities (carpet beating, cello playing) -- all in the same rhythm. It's a moment of pure comic skill. But at the same time, Jeunet slips a bittersweet love story into the middle of the strangeness, relying on Pinon and Dougnac's strong chemistry.
The oddities of the characters are what take this dark comedy to the next level: a tough postman; a pair of brothers who make "moo" boxes, and an aristocratic old lady who goes to great -- and unsuccessful -- lengths to kill herself, Rube Goldberg-style. Julie and the innocent Louison are a bright spot, but the Troglodytes are a bit over-the-top. Really, must they be THAT dumb?
"Delicatessen" is an acquired taste. Okay, now that I've got that out of my system, here's the real end of the review: Jean-Pierre Jeunet's dark comedy is a bit hard to swallow at first, but the wickedly funny characters and offbeat script will win you over.