Delicatessen (1991): Jean Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s Cult Classic

An ingenious film with a surprisingly sweet romance at the center, the original French film Delicatessen defies easy categorization.

Part nightmare comedy, part horror, part childlike fable, it’s successful on all of these levels, which explains why it has become a cult classic.

Cannibalism serves as a metaphor for social oppression in “Delicatessen,” the darkly humorous and stylist feature debut of French directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, previously known for their animation work.

This surreal comic fable is set in a run-down apartment building in a dystopian future. Much like the dark American musical “Sweeney Todd,” it centers on the landlord of the building, who also runs the butcher shop on the ground floor. He keeps his tenants supplied with meat by chopping up hapless applicants for the job of superintendent.

The butcher’s mousy, nearsighted daughter, Julie Clapet (Marie-Laure Dougnac), keeps falling in love with the superintendent de jour. She insists that the newest arrival, Louison (Dominique Pinon, who was charming in Jean-Jacques Beinex’s “Diva”) is different from the others. But the butcher doesn’t believe her, though something makes him hold off from doing in the new guy– until after the neighbors begin complaining about the lack of meat.

The movie is not as black or grisly as its premise suggests, and shrewdly most of the mayhem and violence is left up to our imagination since they occur off screen.

In various interviews, the co-directors have said that they were stylistically inspired by Marcel Carne, Jacques Prevert, and the masters of surrealism Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel.

For some, the movie was too fractured and episodicit unfolds as a series of vignettes, some of which are hilarious, while others are deliberately grotesque. What give the film coherence is the more or less consistent POV of two young boys.

The tenants represent a colorful aggregate, including an old man, who keeps his basement apartment flooded to raise escargots in what’s a recurrent slimy scene. There’s also the prim matron who hears mysterious voices that tell her to do away with herself. It turns out to be a malicious upstairs neighbor who speaks through the building vents. Then there are the two brothers, who support themselves by constructing moo-in noisemakers.

A new superintendent, a former clown still mourning the death of a partner (a chimpanzee that died when it was eaten by the other members of their circus troupe) wanders into this bizarre, painstakingly rendered universe

The co-directors maintain a bizarrely fascinating playful tone helps digest the yarn as it jumps around from one weird and unpredictable subplot to another. Replete with images of macabre horror, the tale navigates rather smoothly amongst its mixture of moods. Though the filmmakers credit mostly French influences, it’s easy to detect the impact of American horror flicks and pop culture on the movie that nonetheless remains remarkable and distinctly French in flavor.


Running time: 97 minutes

Produced by Claude Ossard
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro
Screenplay: Adrien Gilles
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Editing: Herve Schneld
Music: Carlos D’Alessi
Production design; Jean-Philippe Carp, Kreka Kjnakovic
Costume design: Valerie Pozzo DiBorgo