Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 4: Death By Cleaver

French films have pretty much always had a learning curve in style. Starting in the 60s, French filmmakers took post-modernism to its apex and by the time 1975 rolled around there wasn't much left to be done before advances in cinematography and special effects could allow the country's artists to once again come to forefront of audacious directing. After the death of François Truffaut, France's greatest directors went largely unnoticed during the 80s, making films either too simple or too confrontational for foreign audiences. France got its flagship director in the post-Brazil era in the form of Jean-Pierre Jeunet who quickly won just about everyone's heart as he conquered the fantasy and quirky comedy genres simultaneously. After his films made a mark on the world at large, some of Europe's most clever directors began coming out of the woodwork. I can't say for certain that the world's sudden interest in the Michel Hanekes and Christophe Ganses of the world was due to Jeunet's sudden appearance on the scene, but it does kinda seem that way. I defy you to think of a French film with a more vocal stateside following than Jeunet's Amelie or someone whose imagination could have inspired the confidence of the bosses at 20th Century Fox that they would put him in charge of one of their most important franchises (the results were tragic but I digress). Jeunet brought America's attention back to French filmmaking after their dormancy during the 80s and has since become the most important export for mainstream audiences who can tolerate subtitles and this was where it all began.

by Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro

It's a hot, sweaty, post-apocalyptic Parisian night; food is short, animals are nearly extinct and tensions are running high. A butcher sharpens his carving knife near a vent while a nervous looking man a few floors above him listens in. It's almost as if the butcher is taunting the man above with his sharpening. Sensing impending disaster, the nervous looking man covers himself in rubbish and hides in a trash can. When the trash collectors come and he gets hoisted through the air, the man thinks himself safe but when the lid is pulled off and the deranged butcher is there holding the lid and his knife his relief quickly vanishes. The desperate nature of our setting becomes clear the next day when a building's worth of tenants line up to get a week's worth of meat from the butcher with grim impatience. The butcher is also the landlord and everyone knows that they'll pay rent and keep quiet lest they end up on a scale wrapped in cheese cloth. When a short man called Louison arrives to take a job as the building handyman the butcher, whose name is Clapet, smiles with piggish delight; the ad that Clapet put in the paper put me in mind of the one Mr. Burns places before heading to Ape Island (nerds, I shouldn't need to explain what that's from). Everyone else in the building seems similarly delighted at the man's arrival except Clapet's daughter Julie who watches him unpack with sad eyes; I don't think I need to tell you what a building full of hungry cynics led by a mean-eyed butcher plans to do with our hapless handyman.

Louison is a funny little man who delights in making his neighbors and their children laugh, not that anyone feels particularly like laughing; before taking the job Louison made his living as a clown whose partner, a now-deceased monkey, was his only real friend. Julie finds him charming enough to invite him over for dinner and then tries to reason with her father about the man's fate. Clapet has heard this song from her before it seems as he tells her what he must do is for her and everyone else's good. Her attachment to Louison has greater consequences that reigniting a feud with her dad; the postman, who is in on Clapet's scheme and shares his conservative social-Darwinist belief system, harbours a crush for Julie and her affections for the Louison are just one more reason the ex-clown should sleep with one eye open, not that our optimistic hero senses any danger. Julie, seeing misfortune in the near future, contacts an underground resistance group living in the sewers and offers the vast stores of food her father has been squirreling away in exchange for bringing Louison to safety. How much would you like to wager that some comic mishaps are going to throw a monkeywrench in everybody's plan?

Ok, I'll come clean, this isn't strictly a horror film. Ok, it's not a horror film in anything but its cannibalistic premise, which is even dealt with in such an underhanded way that you forget that so monstrous an act is really motivating all these silly characters. I know that a website with the word Zombie in the url and a bunch of Dawn of the Dead stills ought to stick to the fright but this is dystopian sci-fi (of a darkly comic nature), a subgenre I love almost as much as the zombie film and it just so happens to be better and more imaginitive than its peers. I also like doing clever mash-ups of existing styles and genres in my reviews; to that end, this film could be thought of as Soylent Green meets The Triplets of Belleville or Children of Men meets Eating Raoul. And it's not for nothing that I brought up Brazil in the preamble. Jeunet and co-director Marc Caro clearly owe a debt to that film: A madcap adventure where a girl helps an awkward optimist escape the clutches of a conspiracy with the help of a be-goggled underground organization? That’s Brazil alright. Interestingly Gilliam himself was hard at work on his another influential dystopian film when Delicatessen hit theatres in France; that film, 12 Monkeys, also paid homage to classic sci-fi and became one of the more influential films of the nineties. And really I can think of no film more deserving of its audience; it's not scary but it is witty, inventive, unique and endearing rising above the confines of all of its genres and though you know you're safe with these characters it's still fun getting caught up in their story.
The story of Delicatessen is fun and wild and chances are you'll love it; If you're an American you might raise your eyebrows at scenes like the rhythmic apartment. The trailer for Delicatessen was like the Alien trailer of black comedy; it was wordless and probably drove home a lot of anti-French-film sentiment. The preview showed one scene in its entirety that goes like this: Clapet and his long-suffering mistress have sex on a bed with squeaky springs creating a rhythm that is joined by the daily activities of the other tenants (two brothers make children's toys in their shop, Louison paints his ceiling with repetitive brushstrokes, Julie bows her cello, etc.) and the impromptu song grows louder until Clapet finishes his raucous lovemaking. That was all Americans saw before the film hit the nine theatres near NYU that it ever got to, so just imagine what they thought. That scene, while certainly smirk-inducing, is a bit too off-topic for me to just write off to stylishness. Tangents like that, which would make children happy if they'd been allowed to watch this film, draw me out of the film proper as they've nothing to do with the plot. It's almost like Jeunet had too little confidence in his storytelling to leave it to the simple act of playing it straight. There are gaps in the film's logic which would be fine in less capable hands but I've seen all of Jeunet's later work and trust him more than most to deliver a smooth story. Really though I think that the reason the film comes out so disjointed is because the film wasn't made for major studio cash. Delicatessen accounts for its low budget first off by looking amazing and secondly by going on those quirky tangents. The scene where Louison and Julie charm each other by playing cello and saw side-by-side serves no real narrative purpose, nor does the rhythmic apartment, the frogman or even the bits with the Troglodists, really. They exist mainly to show the flare our auteurs had for using film to sing songs as well as tell stories if that makes sense, which is impressive but not especially productive when I'm looking for dystopia. The film could have come to its conclusion just as noisily without those bits but they do make for a more humanistic and distinctive film so of course I'll happily look the other way. Luckily the few quibbles I have are nothing compared to everything Jeunet and co-director Marc Caro do right. Accept that you won't be scared but you will be entertained by something maybe a little childish and well...

Caro and Jeunet split this film right down the middle, Caro handling the environment and Jeunet the actors, which makes for a nearly perfect balance of elements. Jeunet loves quirky characters and rarely has any problem bringing them to life with compassion and humour and Caro is a brilliant designer. Between Caro's knack for strange surroundings, Jeunet's ability to bring out the weird in people and then-unknown cinematographer Darius Khondji's stunning golden-hued pastel pallette, Delicatessen is a feast for the eyes (Sorry, I had to! Don't hurt me!). Delicatessen is one of the few dystopian films with a sense of humour (and not the creepy Charlton Heston kind, either) and rather fittingly launched good many careers not the least of which was Dominique Pinon, Jeunet's only consistent player. You'd know him if you saw him, he's got very sepcific features and could more than easily play a villain but never gets the chance, but he's easy to root for so it's ok. It was also the first film to feature Jean-Pierre Jeunet's trademark look. You can pretty much always look at any frame from his films, see that colour like the sun's just gone down nearby, and know that Jeunet was the man standing a few feet behind the camera. This is logical given that it's his first feature but not many directors arrive on the scene with their style cleary defined. Sometimes the French are just better at this than anyone else. Oh and I do find it rather fitting that the first major dystopian film to come from France had such a strong gastronomic theme, igniting and confronting many of the assumptions about French culture while trouncing the competition.Remember that the majority English language sci-fi films of the day probably had either Rutger Hauer or Christopher Lambert in a starring role if they weren't most unwelcome sequels to existing films (Jeunet soon found himself caught in that noisy machine but left to his own devices he was a dynamo at sci-fi). With crap like Nemesis and Demolition Man hitting theatres every week and success in the genre sci-fi quickly becoming directly proportionate to how much money was spent on futuristic set design that needed to look both advanced and dilapidated at once, seeing Delicatessen was like hearing Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People for the first time. Seeing that someone put as much, if not more, effort into clever sound design as they did into choreographing action scenes was like discovering the artform's potential for greatness anew; that the film takes place in a leaky mostly wooden apartment building instead of a garish futuristic prison was also a pretty big selling point for me. Jeunet and Caro couldn't have picked better elements to combine in a decade where Universal Soldier and Freejack were both greenlit by major studios. It is the cure, the antithesis to sci-fi in the 1990s and even if it weren't half as charming I'd still give it flying colours for its audacity. Luckily, Delicatessen is a pretty remarkable film even out of context.

1 comment:

Dizzy said...

I want to see it !