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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Delicatessen': Tasteless but Filling Morsel

April 10, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Delicatessen" (Fine Arts) is a nightmare comedy with a childlike center of gravity. Set in a truly bleak future--a post-Apocalypse French city where meat-eaters prey on each other and vegetarians are underground insurgents hiding out in the sewers--it adopts a bizarre, playful tone. The macabre imagery and horrific shocks and jolts--the decaying hotel rooms and acts of insane violence--are recorded with a wistful, wackily innocent eye.

Created by two young French filmmakers--Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro--"Delicatessen" is a fearsomely intense movie that mixes moods with formidable assurance. A Grand Prize winner at the Chicago Film Festival, it's loaded with horrific images and macabre jolts that keep resonating eerily in your mind's eye.

An old man lives in a flooded room with frogs and a vast heap of discarded snail shells. A determined but inept suicide tries to hang, poison, shoot and gas herself simultaneously. Meanwhile, an evil apelike butcher (Jean Claude Dreyfus) prowls the shadowy corridors of a deteriorating hotel, cleaver poised, hunting meat.

Appropriately, the movie's heroine and hero are the butcher's myopic cello-playing daughter and a small, sweet-tempered clown, lured in by a phony ad. The clown, Louison, is played by Dominique Pinon, the memorably menacing shaven-headed punk of "Diva." Here, he's not menacing at all; wisps of golden light illumine him like a cracked cherub.

Jeunet and Caro have some obvious influences--Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," Tex Avery's more surreal and violent cartoons--and the movie also suggests Polanski and the Coen brothers. But it's an original: It is like a nightmare. Jeunet and Caro don't rely on dialogue: The speeches here are written by their collaborator, French comic-book artist Gilles Adrien, and the whole movie has been conceived in grandiose, garishly witty comic-book images: tilted, skewed angles, grotesque perspectives. At one point, Louison hangs on a toilet over an abyss. At another, heroine Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) keeps waking, screaming, out of one bad dream, into another.

This is a world where everything is falling apart, where entropy rules, where people have begun to eat each other. "Delicatessen" processes a lot of American movies and pop culture--mostly horror movies--but the movie's look also suggests Eastern European films, while the sensibility is distinctly French.

"Delicatessen" suggests the end of culture and human ties, the triumph of appetite. In strategy, the movie resembles Woody Allen's underrated "Shadows and Fog," another horror comedy with a sweet center. But it connects with its audience in a bloodier, gutsier way.

Jeunet and Caro split up their filmmaking chores--Jeunet directs the actors, Caro is more responsible for design and effects--and perhaps that's why there's such a satisfying density to "Delicatessen." The film itself is playful, weird, unpredictable and a bit tasteless. It has all the prerequisites of a true cult movie, which, in France, it already is. This is one foreign film that probably won't languish in the usual art-house ghetto; "Delicatessen" (Times-rated: Mature, for sensuality and violence) outshocks and outplays the American horror comedies at their own game. It's a feast of fools, a banquet of frissons : a nasty, childlike, murderously funny show.

'Delicatessen'

Dominique Pinon: Louison

Marie-Laure Dougnac: Julie Clapet

Karin Viard: Miss Plusse

Jean Claude Dreyfus: Le Boucher

A Miramax Films presentation. Directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro. Producer Claude Ossard. Screenplay by Gilles Adrien, Jeunet, Caro. Cinematographer Darius Khondji. Editor Herve Schneid. Costumes Valerie Pozzo Di Borgo. Music Carlos D'Alessio. Production design Jean-Philippe Carp, Kreka Kjnakovic. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (sexual situations, macabre violence).

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