Vividly textured, richly ambiguous, and darkly comic, Delicatessen opens in a ramshackle tenement hazily located in a French town in some unspecified dystopian future. Food is scarce, yet the butcher shop occupying the building’s first floor never seems to feel the pinch too badly.
I think you see where this is going… but the new tenant does not. His name is Louison (played by oddly charming rubber-faced actor Dominique Pinon), he’s a former circus performer, and he delights the neighborhood children with his clowning antics, which are cartoonishly impressive. Indeed, all of Delicatessen has a cartoonish quality that meshes weirdly but successfully with its grubby, dark setting and its gruesome premise.
This is the first feature film of co-directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also co-directed the great City of Lost Children. Jeunet is now perhaps best known as the director of Amélie, and it’s easy to see Amélie as the indirect descendant of the grotesqueries of Delicatessen. Both films immerse themselves in a whimsically embroidered narrative built around the laborious quirks of its characters, and does so with an aplomb that magically weaves a potentially overwrought, incoherent mess into a beautifully balanced composition of humor, compassion, sorrow, and wonder.