it took me approximately five minutes to fall in love with "Delicatessen." I was watching it in a French conversation class. The subtitles were covered and I could barely keep up. But I didn't need to understand every word to see what a beautiful film this was -- each camera shot a carefully composed masterpiece that immerses the viewer in a realm of luxuriant imagination. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film leaves you overwhelmed and breathless.
"Delicatessen" is set in a decaying apartment building, in an unnamed French city, in an unknown time in history, after some unexplained, apocalyptic disaster has left the world in gray, ruinous decay. People have turned to random acts of cannibalism in order to survive. From bomb-shattered buildings against an ominous sky to the rotting apartment building that they liken to a human body, following its sinewy pipes and womb-like hollows, Jeunet and Caro find richness in a stark, shattered environment.
The characters, too, struggle to transform devastation into beauty. In this world where people will tear each other to shreds for a morsel of food and draw straws to see who will become the next night's dinner, where the devastation of the spirit is so complete it seems any trace of human goodness is lost, there are still a few who hope.
A clown, Louison, played by Dominique Pinon, is one of these. He is hired by the butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), ostensibly to do general repairs, but his real fate is to be slaughtered. While all the residents of the apartment building have succumbed to their strangest obsessions, their most vile impulses, Louison remains immune. He and the butcher's daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), fall in love, and their clumsy, childlike romance offers reprieve from the film's dark themes. When she tries to convince Louison that people are inherently evil, he responds: "It's only natural. They have nothing." Later, he says, "One must always forgive ... no one is entirely evil. Or they don't realize they've done wrong."
Hollywood has recently rediscovered a cornucopia of ways to end the world, from alien invasions to asteroids. The heroes in these films respond with violence and stupid one-liners; none of the movies explore the inner devastation, the spiritual horror of losing your world. "Delicatessen" thrusts us into post-apocalyptic disaster -- and gives us hope, in a way that is both darkly moving and strangely uplifting. While the butcher is having sex with his girlfriend, the springs of his bed set a squeaky tempo -- and before long all of the building's residents are going about their routines to the lovers' sexual pace. It's a wildly comic scene that resonates with a sense of human connectedness. Another apartment resident creates complex suicide machines that continually and comically fail.
"Delicatessen" proves that when hope and beauty can redeem even the grimmest of themes. I've often looked for a film as beautiful, as warm, as touching, but have always come up short.