Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 16, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1991)

For a while, it seemed like Jean-Pierre Jeunet was going to be the next great French director. He started his career with two visually arresting cult classics. After a mostly failed attempt at Hollywood franchise film making, he would rebound with his most critically successful, internationally beloved film. Yet, in the last decade, Jenuet's work has tapered off, with many of his recent films slipping into obscurity and failing to break through with English-speaking audiences. While it's easy to criticize his movies as overly quirky or self-involved, there's no doubt Jean-Pierre Jeunet presents visions of worlds that aren't quite like anybody else's.

1. Delicatessen 
Co-directed with Marc Caro

After making a few short films together, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his partner in crime, Marc Caro, decided to try their luck with a feature film. Initially, they had planned to make an ambitious, surreal science fiction fable named “The City of Lost Children.” However, as first time filmmakers, they couldn't allocate the necessary budget for that story. Instead, the two cooked up a smaller but no less absurd story. Called “Delicatessen,” the film would win several awards on the festival circuit and develop a following all over the world.

The apartment complex is above a butcher shop. Due to some sort of global collapse, the shop never receives shipments of meat. And yet, from time to time, Clapet the butcher serves up chops to the tenants above. Louison, a former circus clown who has fallen on hard times, arrives at the apartment, hoping to move into a recently vacated room. He immediately develops a rapport with Julie, the shy girl upstairs who happens to be Clapet's daughter. She's reluctant to reveal the truth to Louison. That the meat in her father's shop is from the unlikely boarders, that the entire apartment complex willingly participates in cannibalism. And Louison is on the menu next.

The first thing you'll notice about “Delicatessen” is its setting. The first shot of the film shows a crumbling building, silhouetted against brown fog, in a city that is falling apart. Clearly, some sort of disaster has befallen the world. Food is scarce. Seeds and shoes are used as currency. Riots are spoken of in the city. Despite obviously being set in a near or post-apocalyptic world, “Delicatessen” doesn't clearly take place in the future. The characters wear clothing that recalls the 1950s. The televisions and record players we see are older models. There's an evident age to the cars and rooms, the beds and furniture. In presentation, “Delicatessen” is set in both the distant future and the near past, taking place in an absurdist netherworld.

Of course, the nonchalant acceptance of cannibalism is clearly the biggest sign that something bad has happened in this world. Jean-Claude Dreyfus plays the butcher as a blustering beast, massive in frame and influence. The villainous butcher is a monster of a man, exerting his fanatical control over the entire apartment complex. Aside from his willingness to murder, he bullies the families that rent his rooms. His clear control over the entire complex is brilliantly illustrated in one of the film's most memorable sequences. As the butcher fucks his mistress, their bed springs squeal. The noise spreads throughout the entire apartment. Every action in each room – painting a ceiling, knitting a sweater, playing a cello – falls into the same rhythm. And when the butcher has his noisy orgasm, everyone else in the house similarly looses their composure.

There are many reasons to like this movie but what I find most charming is the love story at its center. Dominique Pinon, in his first of many appearances in Jenut's features, plays Louison the clown. Marie-Laure Dougnac, also reappearing from Jeunet's short films, plays Julie. Pinon brings a child-like innocence to the part, apparent when he performs a magic trick with bubbles for the kids. She, meanwhile, is blind as a bat without her glasses. That last fact is hilariously shown in a sequence when she attempts to serve him tea without her glasses, resulting in some good-natured slapstick. Their whimsy compliments each other. This is most apparent when they perform an enchanting duet. She plays her cello. He plays a bent over saw. Pinon and Dougnac share a clear chemistry yet maintain the characters' innocence. It's darling how sweet Dougnac is, late in the film, when the two characters strip down to their underwear together.

Louison being a former clown presents many opportunities for Jeunet's trademark visual playfulness. One delightful moment has Lousion dancing with an artificial third long, an amusingly choreographed scene. He carries a knife he calls an Australian, a “Krull” style blade that flies through the air and returns to its owner. We learn, through dreams and flashbacks and posters, that the other half of Louison's act was a chimp named Livingstone. In one of the many brilliant ways Jeunet mixes the whimsical and the melancholy, we learn that Livingstone was torn apart by a hungry crowd, desperate for any sort of meat. Julie believes Livingstone to be human at first. Even after discovering that he was an ape, she doesn't sacrifice the sadness she feels over his passing.

“Delicatessen” isn't just about the butcher, his daughter, and the clown that catches. As in many films set in apartments, the other tenants emerge as memorable characters. A family lives in one room. The father is an inventor, whose gadget include a rat summoning whistle and a device that detects bullshit. His two sons like to snatch woman's underwear off their clothesline. The elderly grandmother has a habit of wandering off. They tie tin cans to her ankles so she's easy to find. In the basement lives a pair of toy makers, two men living together in an ambiguous relationship. They scrutinizes their creations, little boxes that make animal sounds, discarding most of the prototypes they create.

These are interesting sketches and I appreciate the peeks we get into their lives. Yet they are not my favorite tenants inside Clapet's building. That honor befalls to two characters. The first of which is an old man who lives in a water logged room, accompanied by a horde of frogs. He eats the snails that crawl around his room, tossing their empty shells into a massive pile. Even more amusing is Silvie Laguna as Aurore. A wife to an unimposing man, she's quite ill. She hears voices, whispered from the pipes, saying nasty things about her. In order to rid herself of the nagging voice, she sets up complex suicide rituals. Each time, the mechanism is more elaborate. Each time, it falls apart brilliantly. This speaks to the morbid but clownish humor running through “Delicatessen,” which Jeunet revels in with childish glee.

It's not just the film's costumes, sets, and visual design that is interesting. Even from his first film, Jenuet displays an inventive directorial style. The opening scene shows the previous boarder attempting to escape the butcher by disguising himself as a pile of trash, a brilliantly composed sequence cutting from inside the trash can to the men carrying the bin around. Later, Julet has a vivid nightmare. In frenzied close-ups, we see Louison threatened by his pet chimp. This leads to a scene of him strung up like a pig, shot in halting, stretching dutch angles. Jeunet is also found of sticking his camera in unexpected places. He peers into pipes, following it down into the water below, or looks from out of static-filled televisions. The film's impish sense of humor begins in its script and extends into its shooting.

You can call “Delicatessen” a science fiction film, due to its otherworldly setting. You can certainly call it a comedy, due to its puckish sense of humor. Even with the focus on eating people, you can't quite call it a horror movie. Yet the act of cannibalism is one rift with deeper meaning. The renters of the apartment complex often complain about how the rich always get the first slices of meat. The butcher's victims are frequently unemployed vagabonds. So there's definitely something here about how the rich eat the poor, literally and figuratively. “Delicatessen” doesn't quite commit to this metaphor because it's not that kind of movie. Any serious social commentary would undermine the absurdity Jeunet and Caro are going for.

Notice I said “serious” social commentary. The silly kind is still on the table. The butcher and the militant postman that sometimes visits rant about the Troglodytes, a group of militant vegetarians that live in the sewers. The group is built up to be dangerous rebels, serious about their cause. This intentionally contrasts with how the Trogs actually act. When we meet them later in the film, they're a bunch of buffoons. While climbing through the interior of the apartment, one Trog pauses to admire a woman's behind. Later, they snatch the same woman when they were suppose to grab Louison. Instead of admitting the obvious, the group stands around arguing about the specifics of the language. In the world of “Delicatessen,” it seems any attempts at political organizing quickly degrades into buffoonery.

Like a brilliant performed trapeze act, a finely tuned if deeply silly sense of balance characterizes most of “Delicatessen.” Until the final scene. As Louison flees from the murderous butcher, it sets a series of events in order that undoes Clapet's tyrannical control of the apartment. Water – a disrupting but cleansing element – sweeps through the building, causing the rooms to crumble apart. Frogs bounce down stairs, guns explode before being fired, and cleavers fly through the air. The villain's strict order is undone, Louison's clownish chaos taking over and freeing the entire building. From this emerges the film's most vital political message: That humor and hope are the greatest weapons against tyrants.

Upon coming to America, “Delicatessen” would immediately develop a reputation as a cult movie. It's combination of vivid visual style, morbid story, and absurd humor would make it a favorite among the specific crowd that enjoys those things. Rewatching the movie, it's surprising how fresh it still feels. From the beginning, Jean-Pierre Jeunet knew exactly what kind of movies he wanted to make, creating worlds that weren't exactly like anything else out there. He would build on “Delicatessen's” lovable style throughout most every feature he made next. [Grade: B+]

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