In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
MOVIE: DELICATESSEN (1991)
WATCH IF YOU LIKE: THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, TAXIDERMIA, HORROR COMEDIES, CANNIBALISM
It’s the holiday season, which means food, food, and more food. So, it only makes sense to highlight a film that is all about food, even if that food includes human flesh. This month’s film for Screams Heard Around the World is the 1991 French film, Delicatessen, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amelie). It takes place in a fictional French town after some kind of worldwide disaster which has destroyed crops and forced people to resort to corn as currency and cannibalism for nourishment. The film centers on an apartment building above a butcher’s shop, where the residents depend on the butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), to provide them protein in the form of human cuts of meat. But, this routine of slaughter is disrupted when Clapet’s daughter, Julia (Marie-Laure Dougnac), falls in love with his next victim, Louison (Dominique Pinon).
While not exactly a horror film, it is horrifying, hilarious, and bizarre. To explain the beauty of this film, I’ve organized a six-course menu of how to digest and savor this film.
Hors d’oeuvres: The Opening Sequence
The opening scene and credit sequence are short but provide a perfect, small bite of what’s to come. Delicatessen opens with a man covering himself in trash and hiding in a trashcan to escape the butcher’s apartment building — he is Clapets’s next target and is trying whatever he can to avoid becoming someone’s Sunday roast. However, he gives himself away and falls victim to the cleaver. Shot in a series of extreme close-ups, with quintessentially French music playing (think a sad accordion), there is a sense of dark comedy to what is a horrifying scenario. You want to chuckle at the extreme closeups of shock and the perverse laughter of Clapet, even though it’s while a man is being slaughtered for dinner.
The sequence then moves to the opening credits, and I’m a sucker for a good opening credits scene. Delicatessen’s is particularly impressive, using the credits to establish a mood and setting, one that is dirty, broken, yet resourceful.
As we progress through our meal/film, we come to a more substantial, yet still light, aspect of Delicatessen: its atmosphere and mood. Throughout its duration, it feels like there is a grime on this film, one that you can almost feel, one that makes you itchy. Outside of the apartment, the air is thick and yellow, hanging over everyone like a cloud, reminding them of their dire situation. It is claustrophobic, dank, and yet still sometimes colorful with the cast of characters that dart in and out of frame. However, when I serve the salad course, I will explain more about the setting of the apartment building.
Fish: Sound Design
For the fish course: Delicatessen’s sound design and use of music. On several occasions the film relies on sound design for comedic and bizarre moments, particularly when Clapet and his lover are having sex. The sound of the bedsprings moving in tandem with their thrusts become a perverse metronome for the building: Julia plays her cello to their rhythm, Louison paints the ceiling with strokes matching the sound, and eventually the whole apartment building has met their tempo, getting faster and faster until the butcher’s eventual climax. It is again an example of something that perhaps shouldn’t be funny but is shot and edited in such a way that you can’t help but laugh.
Music is also what brings Julia and Louison together as they play cello and musical saw together — two instruments that seem so different but make a uniquely strange symphony when played in unison.
Salad: The Apartment Building
The apartment building is a deceptively safe haven from the post apocalyptic world, though that safety is an illusion full of cracks and leaks. With its crumbling walls and leaky pipes, the building, and its residents, have a very 1940s—1950s aesthetic, which reflects a nuclear panic of that time period. Some spaces look pretty, with colorful walls, full bookshelves, record players, and plush pillows, but they are only a veneer for a crumbling space. Lurking in these halls is a murderous butcher, after all.
Despite being a supposed haven in a barren hellscape, not all of the patrons’ apartments are so warm. While Julia’s apartment is seen as a safe space, a place of culture with her paintings, music, and books, there is also a tenant with a dank, flooded apartment full of frogs and snails that cover every surface.
Main Course: “Humane” Cannibalism
Presented on a platter, for your consideration: a steaming piece of human flesh that reflects human desperation in the face of a post apocalyptic world. While Delicatessen lacks copious amounts of gore and violence, the threat of murder and cannibalism hangs in the air of the apartment building. But this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust cannibalism. This is a cannibalism that has rules of who can and cannot be eaten. Current residents are off-limits, which is why they must lure in new tenants. Without these new tenants, there is almost no food so cannibalism is a necessity. With these rules, the tenants and Clapet attempt to maintain their humanity under a thin layer of nice things, nice clothes, all instruments to hide their murderous needs. Louison must be killed to feed the apartment’s families, no matter how much Julia pleads.
The cherry on top of Delicatessen is the comedy sprinkled throughout, that catches you off-guard and makes you question why you’re even laughing. There are so many strange subplots, from one resident, Aurore, trying progressively more ridiculous ways to commit suicide to the mole people living underneath the town. The film’s plot is really just a strange intersection of vignettes about people trying to survive on the edge of the world. There’s even a plot point that addresses why Louison is constantly wearing clown shoes (he had to use his regular shoes as payment for a taxi).
A prime example of this film’s unique brand of comedy is the final fight scene between Clapet and Louison. They’re fighting using the TV antennae and a tenant leans out the window to tell them to move the antennae a little to the left so she can get a better signal. In this middle of this serious, climactic fight scene, all she can do is think about her programs. It’s a perfect comedic moment that shows just how bonkers and strange this fictional world is.
Delicatessen is a mishmash of genres, portraying a series of strange vignettes of the even stranger residents that call the apartment home. It is one wild ride that fluctuates from comedy to horror to slapstick. As the vignettes collide and the film reaches its climax, you can see what Jeunet created is a true black-comedy-horror hybrid: a tale about love, cannibalism, and bags of corn.